Feds warn of attacks related to bogus COVID-19 conspiracy theory

DHS document says threats against telecom "will probably increase."

May 16, 2020, 12:04 PM

What started as a bizarre and bogus conspiracy theory involving the novel coronavirus in Britain has apparently crossed the Atlantic Ocean, U.S. law enforcement officials believe, and they are now increasingly worried about the possibility for real-world violence.

“We assess conspiracy theories linking the spread of COVID-19 to the expansion of the 5G cellular network are inciting attacks against the communications infrastructure globally and that these threats probably will increase as the disease continues to spread, including calls for violence against telecommunications workers,” the U.S. Department of Homeland Security reported Wednesday in an intelligence report obtained by ABC News.

“Violent extremists have drawn from misinformation campaigns online that claim wireless infrastructure is deleterious to human health and helps spread COVID-19, resulting in a global effort by like-minded individuals to share operational guidance and justification for conducting attacks against 5G infrastructure, some of which have already prompted arson and physical attacks against cell towers in several US states,” the report concluded.

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

The assessment was followed on Thursday by a joint intelligence bulletin issued by the FBI, DHS and the National Counterterrorism Center. Both documents were distributed to senior federal officials and law enforcement agencies around the country.

The federal officials who wrote the DHS analysis could not be more pointed about the seriousness of their concerns, saying the bulletin was “intended to highlight targeting and attacks globally against critical infrastructure during the COVID-19 pandemic and advise of online threats against critical infrastructure made by individuals including domestic violent extremists in the United States and others possibly driven by conspiracy theories. Critical infrastructure has been a longstanding target of (domestic terrorists) and current targeting observed appears to be focused primarily on locations associated with the (5G network) and the electric grid.”

The conspiracy theory is totally bogus and has zero connection to legitimate science, according to numerous experts who have researched the question and have been interviewed by ABC News. Once confined to the fringe of the internet, the theory says coronavirus is caused or spread by 5G technology, which is being constructed throughout Western Europe and the US as a means of improving phone and computer communications.

Eileen Culloty, a researcher specializing in countering disinformation at Dublin City University, told ABC News last month that “theories about 5G have been around for years, but were mostly confined to the fringes… For some people, the dramatic upheaval of COVID-19 demands an equally dramatic explanation. 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.”

As the pandemic first began to appear outside of China early this year, fears were heightened among law enforcement when a series of cell towers around Britain were targeted in unexplained arson attacks. By mid-April officials in the UK and US agreed the attacks were likely the result of the online paranoia having jumped from the screen to the real world.

Similar incidents have now been reported in the U.S., according to the federal documents.

“Since December 2019, unidentified actors conducted at least five arson incidents targeting cell towers in Memphis, Tenn., that resulted in more than $100,000 in damages,” the DHS reports say. “Additionally, 14 cell towers in western Tennessee, between February and April, were purposely turned off by way of disabling their electrical breakers," according to separate DHS field intelligence reporting. In April, arsonists set fire to a major cell tower in Portland, Ore., damaging electrical components at the base of the structure.”

Internationally, incidents were also reported in Australia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, according to the documents obtained by ABC News. On top of that, union officials in England reported that “telecommunications workers have been threatened with physical violence in light of conspiracy theories linking 5G networks to the spread of COVID-19.”

The chatter about 5G towers boiled over into an April 22 Facebook posting that “encouraged individuals associated with anarchist extremist ideology to commit acts of sabotage by attacking buildings and 5G towers around the world…in furtherance of an ‘International Day of Sabotage,’” the bulletin said.

Videos have also been posted online, showing people how to damage or destroy cell towers, according to the bulletin.

While many try to dismiss internet craziness as words without significance, experts fear the arson incidents could become another conspiracy like “Pizzagate,” which 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 a child-sex ring were spread online by a number of far-right commentators, leading ultimately to a shooting without injuries at the restaurant in 2016. The shooter later told authorities he went to the restaurant to rescue the “victims” he had heard about.

The 5G conspiracy, unlike Pizzagate, has attracted people from across the political and ideological spectrum, according to intelligence analysts.

“We are seeing more people spreading these conspiracies, but equally disturbing is that more Americans seem to be believing them,” said ABC News contributor John Cohen, who used to oversee DHS intelligence operations as the acting undersecretary of the department. “In some cases, those people that believe the conspiracy theories commit destructive and violent acts as a result. This can be dangerous.”

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