You shouldn't believe everything you read on celebrities' Twitter accounts. A tough lesson, I know.
The fifth generation of wireless telecommunications technology—that's what "5G" means—has the potential to do a lot of things. It promises faster connections, wider access to the internet, and another explosion in app development. The move to 5G could change where you work, how you visit the doctor, and the way you play video games. It's also one of the driving factors in the developing technological cold war between the United States and China.
But it absolutely will not spread a coronavirus.
"A worldwide online conspiracy theory has attempted to link 5G cell phone technology as being one of the causes of the coronavirus," the Federal Communications Commission said in an official statement. "5G technology does NOT cause coronavirus."
I know: The federal government doesn't have the best track record when it comes to telling the truth about the COVID-19 outbreak. But pretty much everyone else who knows what they are talking about is saying the same thing.
The coronavirus is spread from person to person via tiny droplets of saliva. A 5G antenna broadcasts millimeter waves, which are basically elongated radio waves that operate in a part of the light spectrum invisible to the human eye. Millimeter waves cannot carry virus-riddled droplets of saliva on them, for reasons that should be fairly obvious. Some theorists argue that 5G signals can warm your body temperature and weaken your immune system, but this idea "does not stand up to scrutiny," cellular microbiologist Simon Clarke told the BBC.
After seven years of research on the effects of millimeter waves on the human body, the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection found no evidence that electromagnetic fields cause cancer, electrohypersensitivity, infertility, or other negative health effects, Reuters reports.
Satellites, radio telescopes, airport security scanners, and radar all rely on millimeter wave technology. The fact that those waves are now being introduced to the telecom spectrum is not cause for alarm.
And yet there have now been at least 20 incidents of people vandalizing 5G antennas and cell towers in recent weeks. We don't know for sure that the people setting fire to 5G towers are 5G/coronavirus theorists, but some of the attacks appear to have been broadcast online by anti-5G activists. Nothing demonstrates a lack of intellectual rigor than livestreaming the destruction of the very devices that make livestreaming possible.
According to Wired, the 5G/coronavirus theory was kicked off by a Belgian doctor, Kris Van Kerckhoven, who on January 22 gave an interview to Het Laatste Nieuws (that's The Latest News, because Flemish is basically a drunken hook-up between English and German) suggesting a connection between the telecom network and the virus. "5G is life-threatening and no one knows it," read the headline. The story speculated wildly about the fact that 5G antennas had recently been installed around Wuhan, the Chinese city where COVID-19 is believed to have originated.
An editor for Het Laatste Nieuws told Wired that they yanked the story shortly after it was published because of the "unfounded" claims. But the damage was done. Within hours, the story had gone viral on anti-5G Facebook pages in Belgium, and then around the world.
From there, the idea took on a life of its own online. If you want to try to understand the whole progression, Business Insider has a comprehensive timeline.
Fringe theories like this offer some semblance of comfort. Believing that the coronavirus is spread by 5G antennas—or that it was created by Bill Gates, another weird conspiracy theory currently circulating (and sometimes cross-pollinating with the 5G theory)—provides an outlet for the frustration and fear that so many people are feeling right now. It gives us something to blame. That can be more satisfying than chaotic reality.
This is hardly the first time human beings have attempted to blame technology for unrelated ills. Remember when cell phones were supposedly giving all of us cancer? Some airports have been blocked from installing low-altitude radar—technology that can detect potentially dangerous wind shear and prevent plane crashes—because locals were convinced that it might cause cancer. Even before the coronavirus, there was low-level opposition to 5G antenna installations based on (unfounded) fears of health risks.
The 5G/coronavirus theories are dumb, and destroying 5G infrastructure is not going to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Because—and I cannot believe these words actually have to be written—viruses aren't transmitted by cell phone signals.