Across Europe, imaginary 5G threats create real-world headaches

Across Europe, imaginary 5G threats create real-world headaches

The confusion and chaos thrown up by the ongoing COVID-19 crisis has proven to be the perfect battleground for conspiracy theorists to spread their paranoiac propaganda. In particular, anti-5G activists have scapegoated the next generation technology as a supposed culprit for the spread of the virus and taken matters into their own hands, with arson attacks against antennas taking place across the UK and the EU-27.

While the connection between 5G and a global pandemic is entirely baseless, the ramifications of such fearmongering are all too real. As well as destroying parts of the telecommunications network and endangering the infrastructure that keeps individuals (and the emergency services) connected with one another, these arsonists are consuming valuable time, effort and resources in the struggle to repair the damage they’re wreaking, both in a physical and a virtual sense. What’s more, their misguided zeal is deepening Europe’s digital disadvantage relative to other parts of the world, jeopardising its economic competitiveness in the long term.

Fake news, real headlines

Suspicion of new technologies is nothing new, especially in the telecommunications world; mentions of so-called “radiophobia” stretch back as far as 1903. 2G mobile networks were demonised for the supposed carcinogenic properties of the radiation they emitted, and each subsequent incarnation has met with some degree of resistance, although 5G’s detractors have been more vocal and militant than their predecessors. Previously, rhetoric focused on the potential environmental and health impacts of the technology, but with the advent of the coronavirus pandemic at the start of the year, conspiracy theorists have changed tack.

All of a sudden, a raft of new sensational stories emerged: 5G is responsible for causing COVID-19; 5G is spreading the virus at lightning speeds; 5G is a front for a global ploy to inject us all with a “vaccine” designed to track our movements. Such speculation borders on the absurd, but its consequences are no laughing matter. Since January, there have been over 140 attacks on telecoms infrastructure across 10 European countries, with 87 incidents taking place in the UK alone. Britain has also witnessed 250 instances of people physically threatening the engineers tasked with erecting and maintaining the masts, demonstrating the lengths to which these conspiracy theorists are willing to go.

Triple threat

The fallout from these attacks manifests itself in three serious forms. Firstly, the damage inflicted upon the infrastructure – which is often mistakenly directed at 2G, 3G and 4G towers – devastates the fragile threads of communication which hold us together. During a time as fraught with uncertainty as the present one, staying in contact with friends and family via phone and internet is more important than ever – and that’s even before the consequences for the emergency services are taken into account.

Secondly, these destructive episodes cost small fortunes to repair, while the time, effort and resources that are being invested into combatting the misinformation at its source could be far better spent elsewhere. Social media is a chief propagator of this kind of fake news; as of April, there were 487 anti-5G communities on Facebook which added almost half a million new members in just a fortnight, while the top 10 5G conspiracy videos on YouTube had garnered a cumulative 5.8 million views. Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and Google have all since stepped up efforts to limit the spread of untruths online, but national governments and even international bodies like the World Health Organisation and the European Commission (EC) have been forced to debunk the myths surrounding 5G.

Thirdly, and perhaps most concerningly of all, the anti-5G campaign is discouraging local administrations from adopting the technology. In Belgium, there has been concerted pushback against 5G rollout, while one striking example from Italy elucidates the issue with succinct and disconcerting clarity. This time last year, just two Italian mayors opposed 5G implementation; today, 262 are vetoing its installation, with 200 of those having jumped ship in the last two months.

European lag

That resistance is gravely impacting Europe’s ability to compete with the rest of the world in a digital sense. After having been early adopters in the race to upgrade its systems, Europe has fallen far behind the chasing pack of late. As of this June, 10 EU members still have not allocated any of their 5G spectrum, the first step in bringing the system online. Only four countries (Germany, Finland, Hungary and Italy) have allocated over half of their spectrum, meaning that 21% of the total 5G bandwidth in the EU still awaits assignation.

Of course, Europe is not alone in facing the issue of 5G conspiracy theories; Australia has seen protests in Sydney and Melbourne, prompting the government to divert $9 million towards countering the spread of the misinformation online, while the US has suffered attacks on various 5G towers. Those nations, however, are not hamstrung by as much internal division as Europe, whose constituent countries must effectively handle the problem on their own terms.

An uphill battle

That fragmentation is a barrier to implementing 5G in the first place; if different countries operate on different bandwidths, that could cause individual consumers logistical headaches when crossing the EU’s internal borders. The EC has attempted to eliminate that problem by encouraging its member states to hold spectrum auctions concurrently and reserve similar bandwidth segments specifically for the technology. But the delays incurred by doing so are just one more obstacle that more advanced 5G countries, like China and South Korea, simply do not have to deal with.

As if the challenge of staying competitive wasn’t difficult enough, conspiracy theorists are making an uphill battle even more arduous. Given that the European economy is projected to shrink by 7.4% due to coronavirus, and that a total of €2 trillion has been earmarked for aiding the bloc’s recovery, dealing with misguided arsonists is the last thing that European officials need right now. Unfortunately, stamping out the flames on 5G towers – and the flames of the conspiracies which sparked them – at their source will necessarily comprise one more onerous task in the bloc’s emergence from COVID-19.

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