How do new generation technologies, like 5G, end up as conspiracies?

The new generation of connected self-driving cars is a convergence of a long list of technologies. This list includes AI, Big data, 5G, Cloud computing, IoT .. and some others. One technology in particular is interesting because it is stirring a lot of controversy (including being blamed for Covid 19 a few months ago), and that is 5G.


This observation that I will be called on to comment about for the upcoming industry focused Mobility panel, held for Hatch Quarter’s “Tech Tank” series, sent me on a rampage through the scholarly literature, from which I emerged with my sanity mostly intact but my hopes for a better future complicated. However, to bring in social change is to understand humanity in both its capacity for beauty and innovation, alongside how our darkness and anxieties that pass amongst us like wild fire shape that potential.

First, I begin with a sanity statement to pin us to the beauty and innovative capacities that we hold and how we develop technologies to realise this. Researchers, Ahmed et al (2020), state that compared to the current 4G networks, 5G wireless communications provide high data rates, have low latency, and increase base station capacity and perceived quality of service. They observe that the popularity of this technology arose because of the burst in smart electronic devices and wireless multimedia demand, which created a burden on existing networks. A key benefit of 5G, they suggest, is that some of the current issues with cellular networks such as poor data rates, capacity, quality of service, and latency will be solved.

Despite these promising innovations of this emerging telecommunications technology, Mansel & Plantin (2020) observe that fifth Generation mobile technology is at the centre of multiple controversies. They note that this controversy has gained momentum in early 2020 when conspiracy theories conflated the global spread of Covid-19 with China and 5G networks. From this point, we take a deep dive into the conspiracy theories and paranoia that are embedded in the cultural logics of our pandemic plagued times.

Ahmed et al (2020) observe that since the beginning of December 2019, the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has spread rapidly around the world, which has led to increased discussions across online platforms. These conversations have also included various conspiracies shared by social media users. Amongst them, a popular theory has linked 5G to the spread of COVID-19, leading to misinformation and the burning of 5G towers in the United Kingdom.

In March 2020, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO), warned that the world is not just fighting an epidemic but an infodemic (Ghebreyesus, in United Nations, 2020), with real world implications and actions. These fears have fuelled specific conspiracies connecting 5G with COVID-19, animating protests and acts of vandalism that have occurred during the pandemic (Meese et al 2020).

When considering this tendency towards real world impacts of conspiracy theories, researchers Imhoff & Lamberty (2020) observe from existing research on the topic that a conspiracy-prone worldview does not only reduce trust in official versions and adherence to norms but is also linked to a stronger acceptance of violence. They suggest that conspiracy worldviews also make it more plausible to engage in illegal, nonnormative forms of action to reach one’s goals. Drawing from their own prior research, they argue that people high in conspiracy mentality see it as more defensible to use force and other illegal means to pursue one’s political goals.

However it is not just those active on social media the spread 5G related conspiracy theories. Prior to the pandemic relationship, conspiracies related to 5G pointed to Huawei, as a Chinese 5G equipment manufacturer, as being implicated in international trade wars, leading to suspicions of foreign interventions in domestic affairs in the UK (Mansel & Plantin 2020). This conspiracist mentality was pervasive in the British press coverage of the topic in 2017. Researchers Mansel and Plantin highlight the role of British news media coverage of 5G as containing forms of bias that make it difficult for citizens to assess the benefits and risks in an informed way. They found that whilst references to 5G in relation to urban life generally present an optimistic view, reporting on UK government policy in relation to 5G was frequently is linked to applications such as “Surveillance”, “Military Uses” or to the discussion of “Security”, “Data Control”, “Mobile Coverage”, “Personalised Services” and “Virtualisation”.

Building on this finding of the key role of news media in the spread of conspiracy theories, alongside the previous observation of the role of social media in dissemination networks, Australian researchers Bruns et al ( 2020) worked across media formats to trace the dissemination dynamics of rumours that the pandemic outbreak was somehow related to the rollout of 5G mobile telephony technology in Wuhan and around the world. Initially they observed that the rumour built upon a series of related narratives regarding the possible health and environmental impacts of 5G technology, that likely flourished in large part due to pre-existing networks and misinformation surrounding it.

In their analysis, Bruns and co-authors traced the rumour on Facebook from its obscure origins in pre-existing conspiracist groups through greater uptake in more diverse communities to substantial amplification by celebrities, sports stars and media outlets. This finding suggests that pointing the finger at social media, is a diversion from the role of more mainstream and traditional players in the amplification of information.

Past research shows that the increase in conspiracy theories during a pandemic is not a new phenomenon. DeCook (2020) argues that conspiracies surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic are also not unique or “new” in how they mobilize and rally against government institutions, science, and both “democrats” and “liberals.”

In a survey of the scholarly literature it appears that conspiracy thinking increases substantially during times of uncertainty, especially in times of crises and thrive in environments of low confidence and low trust. Conspiracy worldviews have also been connected to refusal to trust science, the biomedical model of disease, and legal means of political engagement and are reflective of the ever-evolving fears of technology and of bodily invasion.

Providing explanations is psychologically advantageous for several reasons, with one sticking out in the previous literature: granting an illusion of control. Considering this reasoning, it is not surprising that a lack of control has been identified as one of the key drivers of conspiracy beliefs. When people are not able to gain control in the real world, they compensate for this lack by perceiving patterns, even if they are an illusion.

The current coronavirus crisis is an almost ideal breeding ground for conspiracy thinking, as there is no easily comprehensible mechanistic explanation of the disease, it is an event of massive scale, it affects people’s life globally and leaves them with lots of uncertainty. Additionally, Mansel & Plantin (2020) identify that new infrastructure projects are always accompanied by conflicting visions or imaginaries and political and economic interests.

5G is also linked to long-standing concerns about potential health hazards of electromagnetic frequencies. Meese et al (2020) detail long-standing concerns around mobile technologies and infrastructures and how they translate to specific worries about 5G technology. They argue that a productive way to understand what is happening with 5G is to look beyond conspiracy theories to a larger set of concerns. DeCook 2020 observes that conspiracy theories often reveal something about the underlying anxieties and fears of the sociohistorical period they are created in as well as the personal anxieties of the adherents themselves

In the current situation, disinformation and conspiracy theories are being pushed from people all along the political spectrum, although DeCook 2020 argues this is more so in far-right information networks. She also observes that all over the world, and particularly in the United States, the anti-science, anti-intellectualist, and anti-establishment ideologies which fuel these movements have been long ongoing.

However, of our current moment, Evans (2020) observes a strange convergence of extremist politics between the new age movements and the far right. From this, perhaps we can say that in times of chaos, everybody regardless of political beliefs is grasping for a nugget of truth to make sense of the situation.

Aupers (2012) has argued that conspiracy theories and paranoia are embedded in the cultural logic of modernity – and that conspiracy culture is not a fringe phenomenon but rather has been absorbed into the mainstream. From this position, DeCook observes that from their pervasive influence, through wide ranging spread due to digital technologies and continual evolution, conspiracy theories as adaptive epistemologies have real and dangerous consequences on societies around the world.

Sources and further reading

Ahmed, W., Vidal-Alaball, J., Downing, J., & López Seguí, F. (2020). COVID-19 and the 5G Conspiracy Theory: Social Network Analysis of Twitter Data. J Med Internet Res, 22(5), e19458. doi:10.2196/19458
Aupers, S. (2012). ‘Trust no one’: Modernization, paranoia and conspiracy culture. European Journal of Communication, 27(1), 22-34. doi:10.1177/0267323111433566
Bruns, A., Harrington, S., & Hurcombe, E. (2020). ‘Corona? 5G? or both?’: the dynamics of COVID-19/5G conspiracy theories on Facebook. Media International Australia, 1329878X20946113. doi:10.1177/1329878X20946113
DeCook, J. R. (2020). The culture of conspiracy and the radical right imaginary. The American Ethnologist. Retrieved from https://americanethnologist.org/features/pandemic-diaries/making-sense-of-things/the-culture-of-conspiracy-and-the-radical-right-imaginary
Evans (2020) Nazi Hippies: When the New Age and Far Right Overlap: Both the New Age and the far right are drawn to conspiracy theories. https://gen.medium.com/nazi-hippies-when-the-new-age-and-far-right-overlap-d1a6ddcd7be4
Imhoff, R. and Lamberty, P. (2020). A bioweapon or a hoax? the link be- tween distinct conspiracy beliefs about the coronavirus disease (covid-19) out- break and pandemic behavior. Social Psychology and Personality Science, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550620934692.
Mansell, R., & Plantin, J.-C. (2020). Urban futures with 5G: British press reporting. London School of Economics and Political Science, June. eprints.lse.ac.uk/105801/ ISBN 978-1-909890-65-7
Meese, J., Frith, J., & Wilken, R. (2020). COVID-19, 5G conspiracies and infrastructural futures. Media International Australia, 1329878X20952165. doi:10.1177/1329878X20952165

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