Arson attacks on UK cell towers alarm US officials concerned over conspiracy theories

Scientists have repeatedly said there is no link between coronavirus and 5G.

April 24, 2020, 7:27 AM

A bizarre series of arson attacks targeting British cell towers in recent weeks likely stemmed from a debunked internet conspiracy theory that swept through the United Kingdom, U.S. intelligence officials concluded in a report reviewed by ABC News.

The U.K. attacks, targeting next-generation cellular infrastructure were “likely linked to COVID-19 conspiracy theories,” according to an April 14 intelligence note issued by the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, an arm of the Department of Homeland Security.

“Conspiracy theories linking COVID-19 to 5G technology have been associated with inauthentic social media accounts,” the report notes. Experts and scientists told ABC News that there is no evidence that coronavirus and 5G are linked in any way, and that the proposed theories surrounding them are "bizarre."

Asked by ABC News if there was any link between 5G and coronavirus, Dr. Simon Clarke, an associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, replied: “Absolutely none.” And the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has unequivocally said there is no link.

While there have been no such incidents in the United States and no one has been hurt in the U.K. cases, law enforcement and government officials on both sides of the Atlantic fear that conspiracy theories tied to the coronavirus pandemic can spark dangerous real-life incidents. It has happened before in other instances, experts warn, adding that it is potentially dangerous.

“Conspiracy theories and other disinformation are dangerous because the information is inaccurate and it can incite violence and other destructive behavior,” said ABC News contributor John Cohen, who used to run the intelligence operations at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. “Increasingly terrorist groups, domestic extremist and foreign intelligence services have turned to using social media platforms to spread conspiracy theories and other disinformation in an effort to sow discord and inspire acts of violence.”

Experts say the recent arsons have worrying similarities to the fictitious “Pizzagate” conspiracy that circulated during the 2016 presidential election campaign. In that case, false allegations that a Washington D.C. pizzeria was a front for a human-trafficking and child sex ring were spread online by a number of far-right commentators, which led to a shooting without injuries at the restaurantin 2016.

PHOTO: Wires of a telecommunications mast damaged by fire are seen in Sparkhill in  Birmingham, Britain, April 6, 2020.
Wires of a telecommunications mast damaged by fire are seen in Sparkhill in Birmingham, Britain, April 6, 2020.
Carl Recine/Reuters, FILE

Debunking the 5G myth

The 5G conspiracy centers around two ideas with no basis in fact, according to Dr. Clarke. “There seem to be two theories driving this, the first one being that the 5G radio waves can impair the human immune system, but all of the sensible studies on this dismiss the idea," Clarke said. "The second theory is that the virus can travel on the radio waves which is just bizarre.”

The bogus conspiracy theory, which has been advanced by some prominent celebrities on social media, has gained considerable traction online in recent weeks, despite there being “no relation between 5G and corona,” Dr. Eric Van Rongen, Chairman of the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection, which sets safety standards for cell phone towers, told ABC News.

“The theory that 5G radiation might help spread the coronavirus is completely flawed,” he told ABC News. “Electromagnetic fields are a form of energy transport that cannot carry particles.”

The only proven effect of 5G on the human body is the potential for low-level heating of parts of the body, and guidelines are set to such a low level this will not occur.

“There are no indications from scientific studies that 5G (or any other G) affects the immune system,” he said. “If that would be the case, we would have seen effects of the massive use of mobile telecommunication systems on the scale and severity of infectious diseases already decades ago. And we don’t.”

‘Reducing complexity into a simple narrative’

According to Dr. Eileen Culloty, a researcher specializing in countering disinformation at Dublin City University, there are a number of different ways in which conspiracy theorists have falsely claimed coronavirus and 5G are linked, although the exact origins of the claims are difficult to pin down.

“Conspirac[y] theories about 5G have been around for years, but were mostly confined to the fringes,” she told ABC News. “The various theories are quite diverse and have developed among advocates of other conspiracy theories.”

Part of the appeal of conspiracy theories, especially with a pandemic involving a novel disease like COVID-19, is that they can appear to fill gaps in public knowledge, especially in times of crisis, she said.

"For some people, the dramatic upheaval of COVID-19 demands an equally dramatic explanation," Culloty said. "That’s the core appeal of a conspiracy theory - it reduces complexity and coincidence into a simple narrative and points at someone or something to blame.”

However, what is clear is that the conspiracy theory – which scientists have repeatedly said is entirely baseless – has spread wildly on social media, particularly by influential celebrities with large followings.

In the U.K., the media standards regulator Ofcom concluded that ‘theories linking the origins or causes of Covid-19 to 5G technology’ is the most common kind of misinformation the public has been exposed to over the past month. FEMA, meanwhile, has identified the conspiracy theory as one of the main pieces of coronavirus misinformation worldwide, and categorically said that ‘5G technology does NOT cause coronavirus.”

“In a crisis like this it is vital that high-profile people use their platform responsibly,” Culloty said. “Apart from undermining scientific health advice, sharing false information has knock-on effects by causing unnecessary panic and forcing experts, journalists, and others to spend valuable time debunking conspiracy theories.”

“More generally, the proliferation of conspiracy theories erode trust in science and scientific evidence, which could have major implications for public health measures,” she said.

'Don't take a bite'

Conspiracy theories are especially infectious on social media, where they can be shared widely, quickly and without any scrutiny to their claims. As well as high-profile sharers, a number of bot accounts have spread the theory, which may be evidence that “these activities might be organised as they require resources and knowledge,” according to Marek Tuszynski, the co-founder of the disinformation nongovernmental organization Tactical Tech.

“Without social media it may take any conspiracy theory months if not years to gain attention: with social media a conspiracy theory can accelerate within less than two weeks,” he said.

What to know about Coronavirus:

PHOTO: In this Jan 28, 2020 file photo, mobile network phone masts are visible in front of St Paul's Cathedral in the City of London.
In this Jan 28, 2020 file photo, mobile network phone masts are visible in front of St Paul's Cathedral in the City of London.
Alastair Grant/AP, FILE

So far in the U.K., up to 20 cell phone masts have been targeted by arsonists, including one that provides connectivity for a National Health Service hospital used to treat COVID-19 patients, according to Nick Jeffery, the CEO of Vodafone U.K. He blamed the conspiracy theory directly and in a post on LinkedIn said: “in practice, this means families not being able to say a final goodbye to their loved ones; hard-working doctors, nurses, and police officers not being able to phone their kids, partners or parents for a comforting chat.”

“There has been a series of recent arson attacks and cases of criminal damage to telecommunication masts,” Steve Rodhouse, the director general of operations at the National Crime Agency (NCA), said in a statement to ABC News. “These attacks have escalated across the UK during the coronavirus pandemic. The NCA is now leading the overarching response to this threat. We are working with law enforcement and industry partners to improve the intelligence picture, investigate the threat and ultimately, prevent future attacks.”

In the meantime, Tactical Tech has endorsed a number of guides to help identify misinformation, and the group's leader, Tuszynski is adamant that we all have roll to play when it comes to stopping the spread of misinformation.

“In short, our advice is: don't share everything that you come across,” he said. “we are all influencers; don't take a bite - misinformation is as catchy as credible information often is.”

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