Conspiracy theorists are using the aviation industry’s concerns about the launch of 5G services near airports as “proof” that their wild claims about the technology are also true.
Whether it’s claims that 5G is being used to spread COVID, or that the next-gen wireless technology is part of a plot to control the human population, or that switching on 5G will cause people to suddenly explode, conspiracy theory communities around the globe are leveraging the real concerns airlines are raising about the technology to convince their followers that their warnings about 5G are also true.
“Conspiracy communities are exploiting anxieties and development issues surrounding 5G as an opportunity to further promote baseless claims that attempt to link the deployment of this technology with other prominent world events like COVID-19 and in the process they are serving to further push fear-mongering and alarmist narratives online,” Ciaran O’Connor, an analyst with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, told VICE News.
What’s really happening with the 5G rollout?
On Wednesday, U.S. cellular networks like AT&T and Verizon are scheduled to switch on their 5G networks across the country. But airlines have been warning that the launch of the high-speed technology could interfere with aircraft safety and navigation systems, and United Airlines and American Airlines said Tuesday that they were preparing to cancel flights if the rollout went ahead. Some international airlines also said they would cancel flights into the U.S. if the launch went ahead.
5G is not a new technology and networks have been up and running in other countries for several years without this issue cropping up. The difference in the U.S. is related to the frequencies being used.
The problem lies in a part of the radio spectrum between 3.7 and 4.4 gigahertz (GHz) where the wavelengths are long enough to travel a good distance, which is key for good cell phone coverage, but short enough to hold a lot of data, which is key for altimeters providing precise readings as aircraft approach the ground in poor visibility.
The space between 3.7 and 4.2 GHz was given to 5G services, while the band from 4.2 to 4.4 GHz carries messages to aircraft altimeters, which measure how high a plane is in the sky. This decision was made almost two years ago, yet it was only weeks before the networks were due to switch on their 5G services that the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) raised the issue of a potential threat to aircraft safety at the point where the bands meet.
In a bid to avoid any issues, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which regulates the wireless spectrum, imposed a sort of buffer zone, limiting 5G signals to wavelengths below 4.0 GHz.
But the FAA continues to raise red flags, claiming that some altimeters might still be vulnerable to interference. The FAA is unable to say what percentage of aircraft may be affected, as it has no set standard for altimeter security.
On Tuesday, Verizon and AT&T agreed to scale back or postpone the launch of 5G wireless service near airport runways until the issue is resolved.
But the confusion, combined with some fear-mongering headlines about the threat 5G poses to aircraft, has created the perfect environment for conspiracy theories to thrive.
Acts of violence
Two years ago, a wave of anti-5G conspiracy groups sprang up. The rollout of the technology at the same time as the COVID-19 pandemic was too much of a coincidence for people to ignore, so they put two and two together–and came up with 666.
The groups claimed that 5G was being used to spread COVID-19 because a 5G network had been switched on in Wuhan just before the outbreak was first detected there. Other theories claimed the virus was released on purpose to deflect attention from the rollout of 5G networks, while others claim 5G aids the transmissibility of the virus.
The conspiracy theories began online, but soon inspired acts of real-world violence.Dozens of cell towers were attacked and burned down, and telecoms engineers were attacked in the street while doing their jobs.
Like all conspiracy groups, there were made up of true believers and grifters. The latter began shilling a wide variety of anti-5G products including a Faraday cage for your Wi-Fi router, a $370 “5G Bioshield” that was a USB stick with a sticker on it, and an “anti-5G” necklace that turned out to be radioactive.
Now, as the FAA and FCC try to find a last-minute fix for an issue that has been known about for months, conspiracy theorists are looking to cash in on the confusion.
In recent days, anti-5G groups on Facebook, Twitter, and Telegram have been sharing headlines about 5G threats to aircraft safety in a series of “I told you so” posts, smugly telling their followers that the headlines were proof that all the other wild and baseless conspiracies they’ve been sharing about 5G were true.
“Holy crap—this is major news,” one Twitter user responded to a post about Verizon and AT&T’s decision to partially delay rollout. “If they are agreeing to this delay what other ‘5G conspiracies’ are actually true??”
The claims being made are broadly similar, but they have been updated in some cases to take into account the widespread availability of vaccines.
One popular claim being made in these communities is that “activating 5G could kill” vaccinated people, with some going further to falsely claim that “5G will affect the vaxxed because they have graphene oxide(nanotechnology) now in there [sic] bodies.”
Another conspiracy theorist who linked COVID to 5G claimed that viruses and pandemics apparently go hand-in-hand with the rollout of new technology. They stated “pretty sure the birth of radio waves in the world was [the] year of the Spanish Flu.” The Spanish Flu started in 1918, about three decades after the discovery of radio waves occurred in the late 1880s— but these communities rarely let things like facts get in the way of a good scare.
Others focused on the date, with one prominent white supremacist/conspiracy theorist claiming that somehow the launch of 5G on Jan. 19 (1/19) was linked to 9-11 because the numbers are the same—if you reverse them… or something.
While the conspiracy theories may seem ludicrous, they are being used to instill fear and hesitancy among people who have been bombarded with an unprecedented wave of conspiracies during the pandemic, leaving certain groups of people more likely than ever to belief in these lies.
Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.