box with 5g written on side and attached to a tower

Untangling Myths & Fears About 5G

Even before the pandemic, rumors were spreading about the 5th generation mobile network (5G), the most recent innovation in wireless technology. Claims attempting to link 5G to everything from brain cancer to Alzheimer’s disease began to circulate almost as soon as the new technology was announced to the general public.

The disinformation has increased with the introduction of COVID-19. Due to the fear and uncertainty that has accompanied the pandemic, myths, and fringe theories have spread much faster than usual. In this article we provide you with the resources you need to understand what 5G technology actually is, how disinformation has spread, and how to separate fact from fiction.

What is 5G?

5G is the latest development in mobile networking. It uses wider bandwidths than its predecessors, and it’s based on ODFM (orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing) – a term for modulating a signal across several channels to reduce interference. 5G is designed to be faster than 4G, with much greater capacity and lower latency.

But actual performance can vary by network. This is because 5G networks may utilize three different bands of wavelength. High-band waves are very short and transmit data very fast, but they can’t penetrate buildings and they require a greater number of cell towers in closer proximity. Low-band waves have much better range, but their speeds are lower. And mid-band waves split the difference, balancing speed with range.

Still, even low-band 5G can outpace 4G in terms of reliability and speed – increasing the potential for a more unified, inclusive network. And that’s exactly what’s so promising about it. Where the goal with 4G and 4G LTE was to increase speed, the goal with 5G is to create a platform that integrates new services like mission-critical communications or the Internet of Things (IoT).

Think of all the “smart” devices or objects that can communicate with each other – from cell phones to cars, appliances, or accessories – virtually anything. With 5G, these devices may be quickly and seamlessly integrated on one network that has the capacity to handle the massive amounts of data they store and exchange.

Disinformation and COVID-19

With any new technology bizarre new theories emerge. But 5G disinformation is spreading faster and proving more dangerous than usual. Earlier this year, campaigns claiming a link between 5G and COVID-19 made the rounds on social media.

The campaigns took differing forms and are difficult to trace to one source, but two prominent versions emerged: one claiming that “5G can suppress the immune system,” and one suggesting that “the virus can somehow be transmitted through the use of 5G technology.”

The natural course for unscientific fringe theories like these is for them to remain primarily on the fringes, with relatively few supporters and limited shares. But by mid-April, the COVID-19-related 5G disinformation had increased exponentially. In the UK and Europe, people began attacking cell towers, burning down 77 of them by early May. Some of these towers provided services to hospitals and other essential infrastructure.

And the violence wasn’t limited to equipment. Telecommunications employees have also reported attacks and threats of violence. As of April 21, more than 40 employees at one UK carrier had been physically attacked, with one engineer sent to the hospital with stab wounds.

In mid-May, US federal authorities issued an assessment on the conspiracy theories and resulting violence, acknowledging the disinformation as a global issue and indicating that “these threats probably will increase as the disease continues to spread, including calls for violence against telecommunications workers.”

Myth Busting

Battling this threat is a multi-pronged effort, but stopping the spread of disinformation is arguably the most important element in the process.

Plenty of scientific rebuttals exist. The International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) conducted a long-running study of 5G, refuting the claims attempting to link 5G to cancer or other illnesses. Radio waves used with 5G are on the low-frequency end of the spectrum, less powerful than visible light. The type of waves that can damage cells (like ultra-violet light, x-rays, or gamma rays) are much higher frequency.

Regarding COVID-19 in particular, it’s impossible for 5G signals to transmit or cause the illness. We already know that the illness is caused by a specific, identifiable virus. And the method of transmission for viruses has nothing to do with cellular network signals.

As Adam Finn, professor of pediatrics at the University of Bristol, notes: “Viruses and electromagnetic waves that make mobile phones and internet connections work are different things. As different as chalk and cheese.”

Some organizations have taken action to hinder the spread of conspiracy theories. YouTube, one of the social media hubs for this type of disinformation, has announced stricter guidelines, completely banning all content linking 5G with COVID-19. Prior to the ban, the service had only limited how often it recommended such content to viewers.

Other platforms, like Facebook, have not only banned content related to COVID-19 conspiracy theories, but have established information centers dedicated to providing users with accurate, verified, up-to-date information on the virus.

In the end, each individual or organization has the responsibility to ensure that they are equipped with accurate information. While videos or posts linking COVID-19 to a government conspiracy or a new technology might draw a lot of attention, they can be dangerous. In general, it’s best to avoid gathering or sharing information from posts shared on social media or other platforms without first vetting that information with outside sources. Examining news with a critical eye (especially when that news sounds outlandish or conspiratorial) will help keep you safe in the midst of the current crisis.

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