Roundup Folks, we regret to inform you it's still 5G silly season.
This news, of course, won't come as much of a surprise. We're in the midst of a pandemic that has utterly changed the fabric of society, turning our homes into cushy boltholes we cannot leave, except for brief moments of parole where you can queue outside Tesco to buy a loaf of bread.
SARS-CoV-2, the new virus responsible for an outbreak of respiratory illness known as COVID-19, is still very much an unknown quantity. We don't fully know how it works. We don't even fully know how many people have caught it. And it's often easier to believe a conspiracy theory – like that 5G is responsible for a virulent respiratory sickness – than to accept one lives in a world one does not fully understand.
This isn't just a matter of people believing a comforting lie. Fervent converts to the anti-5G cause are taking matters into their hands, encouraged by a cast of charismatic charlatans. Like this guy.
The Vodafone exec who wasn't
Late last month, footage circulated online purportedly showing a former Vodafone executive talking about the dangers of 5G. The content could have been lifted from an Alex Jones* fever dream.
5G masts didn't just bring faster internet, the 38-minute diatribe claimed, but was instead a potent weapon that caused the symptoms – and deaths – of the coronavirus.
"I was the head of the largest business unit at Vodafone between 2014 and 2015. I was privy to a number of new technologies coming down the pipe – namely IoT and 5G," the voice said.
"The frequency that they're using is just below the classification of a weapon," he added. "When it comes into connection with human bodies, it causes cell poisoning."
This would result in a "vaccination", he claimed – which he said would have a "catastrophic" impact on physical wellbeing, and would come with an RFID chip (yes, really) to track the recipient, leading to a dystopian 1984-like world.
The RFID chips? They're all Bill Gates' idea, he added, a variation on another conspiracy theory that was doing the rounds in March. And while Gates is undoubtedly a genius, we're not sure the man behind Windows Vista is capable of pulling off a planet-wide coup.
The video went viral for all the obvious reasons. It came from an articulate voice purporting to have inside knowledge. And although YouTube has tried to remove it, you can still easily find it elsewhere, particularly on Facebook, which is relatively less aggressive when it comes to removing misinformation. (The social network said at the beginning of the month it would remove posts linking 5G with the novel coronavirus.)
As you've probably guessed, the speaker wasn't a former Vodafone exec. His name is Jonathon James, a preacher at evangelical churches around Bedfordshire. While he did work at Vodafone, according to company sources speaking to The Guardian, he merely worked in sales and lasted less than a year in the job. James has somewhat of a colourful history. In 2018, he worked for the Zimbabwe People First party as an economic advisor, where he encouraged the national adoption of cryptocurrency.
Zimbabwe's monetary woes (and subsequent hyperinflation) was the result of rampant currency printing, culminating in the creation of an almost farcical $100 trillion bill. Predictably, given the country suffered a peak inflation rate of 79.6 billion per cent in 2008, these were almost worthless.
There's something of an overlap between cryptocurrency enthusiasts and 5G conspiracy theorists, which isn't all that surprising, given fruitcakes of a feather will inevitably flock together. And replacing imaginary money with more imaginary money seems a bit like trying to stop a house fire by pouring kerosene on the flames. But that's not really the point, is it?
What does matter is that people believed him. The video still circulates. And his brand of bogus, conspiratorial nonsense has real-world consequences.
Engineers are getting attacked and harassed. Phone masts – including those near hospitals – are getting torched. And there's a risk that if enough people drink the Kool-Aid, the rollout of a very promising technology could end up being disrupted when it's needed most.
5G conspiracy theorists can also turn to violence as well as misinformation, as noted by Communication Workers Union deputy general secretary Andy Kerr.
"We've actually had cases where people have been threatened with being stabbed, threatened with physical violence and in some cases actually threatened with murder," Kerr told the BBC.
The kicker? Most members aren't deploying 5G masts, but rather performing routine maintenance on existing broadband and cellular networks.
Sometimes things go beyond mere threats. Earlier this month, BT CEO Philip Jansen, who has himself contracted coronavirus, said 39 of the firm's engineers had been assaulted by members of the public.
And as 5G conspiracy theories continue to enter the public consciousness, it's only a matter of time until someone gets seriously hurt — or, and hopefully not, killed.
The problem of balance
At first glance, balance sounds like a good thing. Surely there's nothing wrong with hearing multiple opinions and perspectives on an issue. Healthy debate isn't just good, it's also the bedrock of a thriving democracy. But not every issue has two sides. Sometimes, there's just one valid perspective – the one grounded in reality. Anything else is just bullshit.
Take note, The Derby Telegraph, which recently published an article titled "Several controversial 5G phone masts earmarked for Derby streets". It again describes the masts as "controversial" in the opening paragraph, before noting: "Some people claim that 5G technology is dangerous for public health."
In fairness, the news is dismissive of the alleged links between 5G and COVID-19, saying that "a small number of conspiracy theorists have wrongly claimed it is the cause of the coronavirus pandemic" and "any links to 5G and the coronavirus have been emphatically dismissed by experts".
Nonetheless, by framing the issue as "controversial" and leaving open the wider point that 5G could be dangerous to public health, it lends credence to beliefs that have no grounding in reality.
Sometimes, you just have to tell it like it is. ®
* The Texan shock jock. Not the gregarious Welsh TV presenter from BBC's The One Show.