April 13, 2020
One conspiracy theory making the rounds on the Internet connects the coronavirus outbreak to 5G technology. Although actors Woody Harrelson and John Cusack are among those endorsing the misinformation, researchers indicate the majority of online activity around this theory is coordinated and possibly state sponsored. That’s the conclusion of Marc Owen Jones, a researcher at Qatar’s Hamad bin Khalifa University, who analyzed 22,000 Twitter interactions and found a large number displaying “inauthentic activity.”
Bloomberg reports Jones’ conclusion is that, “there are very strong indications that some of these accounts are a disinformation operation.” Although Jones said the current campaign “uses a strategy similar to Russia’s Internet Research Agency, which was behind a disinformation campaign during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign,” he can’t definitively conclude that Russia (or any other government or organization) is the culprit.
He’s not alone in detecting the campaign. Blackbird.AI’s chief technology officer and cofounder Naushad UzZaman reported that, “in the previous 24 hours, there had been more than 50,000 posts about the topic on Twitter and Reddit.” He added that there has been “significant uptick in inauthentic amplification” of social media posts linking 5G and the coronavirus, “indicating that there could be a coordinated campaign and bot accounts involved.”
But neither his company nor Global Disinformation Index researchers have “determined who is behind the effort.” At cybersecurity firm FireEye, senior manager Lee Foster noted that, “the barriers to entry are really low, so any number of actors can replicate the same kind of techniques.” Astroscreen founder and chief executive Ali Tehrani reported that, “we’ve seen accounts that you could say are inauthentic and coordinated promoting the 5G conspiracy, but I think the bigger problem right now is high-profile individuals spreading misleading information.”
Last week, Google’s YouTube banned all videos linking 5G to coronavirus, saying that all such videos are now in violation of YouTube policies. According to a Reddit spokesperson, the company is intent on “connecting people with authoritative content and experts,” and that that “dedicated teams” are ferreting out and mitigating manipulative content. In the U.K., a parliamentary committee said it plans a hearing later this year “at which representatives from U.S. technology giants will be asked about how they have handled the spread of disinformation on their platforms.”
The genesis of the claim that the coronavirus is linked to 5G technologies “may have originated with comments made by a doctor in Belgium, saying he believed 5G was ‘life-threatening’ and connected to the coronavirus,” although he also admitted he hadn’t “done a fact-check.”
Although “the newspaper that printed his comments retracted the story,” the theory gained traction, while “users of online forums such as 4chan have encouraged people to vandalize 5G equipment” and celebrated instances of arson of 5G mobile phone masts. “Since the start of April, the U.K. has seen 30 acts of vandalism directed toward cellular network hardware, including several acts of arson,” reports Ars Technica. “People working on the hardware have also been subject to harassment.”