5G conspiracy theories are sweeping the planet. Why?
15 April 2020
Opinion: There's no evidence linking 5G to the COVID-19 coronavirus, yet 5G conspiracy theories are sweeping the planet. This fear fits a historical pattern, explains Robert Bartholomew.
The latest wave of conspiracy theories to make the rounds holds that 5G is either directly responsible for coronavirus symptoms or has weakened the immune systems of people around the world, rendering them vulnerable to what would otherwise be a relatively harmless virus. Claims that 5G (which stands for the fifth generation of mobile technology) is harmful to human health because it gives off electromagnetic radiation are without foundation.
From wi-fi to wind farms
New technologies have long been the focus of health fears. When AM radio was first developed in the early 20th century, there was concern that the invisible waves were making people sick. Some even theorised it was disrupting weather patterns. When computer terminals came into widespread use in the early 1980s, some worried that they were causing birth defects and miscarriages. More recently, mobile phones and Wi-Fi have been the subject of unfounded claims that they were responsible for everything from heart attacks to cancer.
In 1889, an article in the British Medical Journal warned that spending long periods on the telephone could cause “nervous excitability, with buzzing noises in the ear, giddiness, and neuralgic pains.” Others blamed the use of the telephone for vertigo and even concussions! In 1807, Austrian composer and physician Peter Lichtenthal concluded that sound waves from music could damage the heart and blood vessels. By 1877, science writer Grant Allen asserted in his book 'Physiological Aesthetics' that music was a major factor in the appearance of disease resulting from the nervous system becoming “jarred by discordant sounds.” Women were thought to have been especially susceptible due to their ‘fragile’ nervous systems.
A recent example of the fear of new technologies and health is centered on wind farms. While some people claim that the sound produced by the turning of the blades causes over 200 conditions including cancer, studies conducted at University of Auckland by Professor Keith Petrie and his colleagues show a clear psychological origin. His findings were echoed by Australian Public Health expert Simon Chapman, who observes that no less than 25 scientific reviews have been conducted on the subject since 2003 and “have concluded that there is very poor evidence for any claim that wind turbines are the direct cause of any disease. Rather, a herd of uncontested elephants in the room point unavoidably to a conclusion that ‘wind turbine syndrome’ is a communicated disease: you catch it by hearing about it and then worrying.”
There is very poor evidence for any claim that wind turbines are the direct cause of any disease. Rather, a herd of uncontested elephants in the room point unavoidably to a conclusion that ‘wind turbine syndrome’ is a communicated disease: you catch it by hearing about it and then worrying.
A dangerous idea
Why has the spread of 5G rumors gone so viral so quickly? It may be that with so many people in lockdown, they are spending more time online and are susceptible to social media postings when they should be getting their news from more reliable sources. Fear and uncertainty are known to generate rumors and bogus theories.
The 5G conspiracy theories are not just nonsense, they are dangerous because so many people around the world have been asked to heed the advice of their public health officials and self-isolate. The problem is, if people believe these theories, they may begin to ignore social distancing guidelines and put everyone else at risk, causing the virus to spread more pervasively.
Some pseudo-scientific claims are not just without merit—they can be dangerous, especially in the middle of a pandemic. It only takes a few people to believe such poppycock for the hard-earned gains made by social distancing and self-isolating to be lost.
Robert Bartholomew is an Honorary Academic in the Department of Psychological Medicine within the University of Auckland's School of Medicine. He specialises in social panics, popular delusions and mass suggestion.
This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland.
Used with permission from Psychology Today, 5G conspiracy theories are sweeping the planet. Why? 9 April, 2020.
Gilbert Wong | Research Communications Manager
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