Misconceptions about the technology and lack of consultation with local communities may have boosted conspiracy theories
When Tonia Antoniazzi stood up in the House of Commons to talk about the risks of 5G, she admitted that “initiating a conversation … has had members of my own team and family telling me that it is all made up.” But the Labour MP was undeterred, securing a debate in parliament and the support of a handful of Labour and SNP colleagues to ask about the “unintended consequences” of the latest upgrade to the nation’s mobile phone network.
The government’s response – that there was no evidence of any risk, and that it anticipated “no negative effects on public health” – was, Antoniazzi said, “far from reassuring”.
Junk science is a fact of life. Between hyperbolic reporting of careful studies, careful reporting of hyperbolic studies and “common sense” dismissal of any studies at all, it is getting harder and harder for non-experts to separate reasonable concerns from medical misinformation.
So as Britain’s carriers lined up to launch their 5G networks this summer, they were expecting some resistance. Fears over the health effects of mobile telephony are widespread, ranging from fairly limited concerns about potential long-term risks of living or growing up in close proximity to masts, to claims of full-blown “electromagnetic sensitivity”, which supposedly manifests as a plethora of symptoms from headaches to immunodeficiencies.
But what greeted them wasn’t just the same collection of alternative medicine proponents and anti-infrastructure nimbys who reliably oppose every new launch.
“Were we surprised by the existence of opposition? No,” says EE’s head of technology communications, Howard Jones. “Were we surprised by the scale, and the organised nature of it? Yes … It’s alarmist, very sensationalist and designed to scare.”
Jones is firm: there is absolutely no evidence that 5G, or any other part of the network, is dangerous. “The wavelengths that 5G uses and will use are all entirely safe and have been in research and testing for decades. It’s a red herring to say it’s a new technology and therefore hasn’t been tested,” he says.
To fully debunk the health fears around 5G is impossible: there is no consistent set of claims being made, few explicit studies being cited, and a surfeit of scientific terminology being used in ways that obscure rather than illuminate. Not a single expert the Guardian spoke to believed there was any reliable evidence of harm from 5G or any other part of the publicly licensed broadcast spectrum. And the carriers are emphatic that, in the words of Three UK, “from a health and safety perspective, 5G deployment is no different to any other mobile technology … no harmful levels of radiation are emitted.”
But there are themes that recur again and again.
At the far end of the range is belief that the 5G rollout is a vast mind control experiment, a successor to the CIA’s MKUltra experiments. There is the fear that 5G will result in a great increase in the number of masts, or the amount of energy sent over the radio spectrum, in a way that will prove harmful. There is a more general concern about the nature of “millimetre wave” technology, which forms part of the 5G spectrum in some nations (although not, at present, the UK).
There’s a belief that the technology is untested, and that the subsequent rollout is in effect an experiment on the population at large. And then there’s a generalised frustration at the fact that the whole thing feels like a fait accompli, presented to the public as an unstoppable force of nature, rather than a consultative process of negotiation.
If there were a negotiation, sitting on the side of the opposition would be Martin Pall. A retired professor from Washington State University, Pall’s research interests are practically an encyclopaedia of the medical counterculture, ranging from a novel take on the causes of chronic fatigue syndrome, tinnitus and heart failure to research on the risks of wifi, tanning salons and otheremitters of electromagnetic fields.
In a 90-page self-published document posted online last May, Pall gave the rallying cry for the 5G opposition: “Putting in tens of millions of 5G antennas without a single biological test of safety has got to be about the stupidest idea anyone has had in the history of the world,” he wrote. That line has been widely quoted, everywhere from the r/conspiracy subreddit to the House of Commons, where Antoniazzi approvingly quoted Pall to accuse the government of “sweeping the health concerns under the carpet”.
“The extremely inaccurate statements being made by certain MPs was disappointing,” Jones said when I spoke to him after Antoniazzi’s comments. “I think you would expect better from people representing constituents. I would expect a higher standard of research to have been done.”
But the problem with calling for research is that it’s very easy to research 5G’s effects on health. Just Google “is 5G bad for health” and you’ll find numerous articles confirming just that: “Why 5G cell towers are more dangerous – get the facts!”, reads a headline on RadiationHealthRisks.com, on the first page of Google results. Just above that, an Eluxe Magazine article (“Frightening frequencies: the dangers of 5G”) presents a list of cherry-picked studies demonstrating various harms from various types of radio waves.
But these fears are decades old. So why the specific panic about 5G? Everyone has a different answer. Scott Petty, Vodafone’s chief technology officer, says that some of the misinformation stems from the US, where a particular form of 5G using a part of the radio spectrum known as millimetre wave or mmWave technology will be put into use.
It hasn’t been used in mobile phone networks before, largely because it’s not particularly good at the job: as a high-frequency part of the spectrum, it’s more easily blocked by things like trees or glass. When there’s clear line of sight, it can carry more information than the parts of the spectrum now used for mobile phones, but not enough to make it worth the trade-off for Vodafone, Petty says.
The use of mmWave has allowed some scary inferences to be drawn. The spectrum has previously been used for two other well-reported purposes: the body-scanners installed in airports over the last decade, and an experimental US weapon called the Active Denial System, which fires a high-powered beam at a target, creating a burning sensation.
It’s easy to see how that link can be spun into something fearful. But 5G is no more a weapon of war than a wifi router is a microwave oven – even though both those products use the same part of the spectrum, around the 2.4Ghz mark.
The same flaws of mmWave that mean it’s not being used in the UK have led to another line of concern: that in order to get around the problems, carriers will massively increase the number of masts they install. “That would be true if we only used mmWave,” Petty says, “but no one is planning that. We will use approximately the same number as we already use for 2, 3 and 4G.”
And then there’s more half-science. “The higher the frequency, the more dangerous the spectrum” is, broadly, true: all ionising radiation lies at the extremely high frequencies. But between x-rays and mmWave lies quite a large part of the spectrum that people interact with all the time: visible light.
It’s easy for the British industry to dismiss concerns by pointing to mistakes about mmWave technology, but perhaps shortsighted, writes Peter Wingate-Saul, a chartered surveyor who has worked in the telecoms industry for more than 20 years. After all, “you probably will be using them sooner or later”, so it’s worth avoiding “the impression that there might be something suspect about them”.
EE’s Jones has a bolder answer to why 5G misinformation is so widespread, citing a New York Times article that highlighted how popular scary stories about the technology had become on Russia Today. The paper noted that the American version of the channel had run seven documentaries alleging 5G harms in 2019 alone, and argued that the move was part of an effort to hold the US back on rollout of the technology. Russia itself lags behind the pack but hopes to catch up.
“It is in and of itself a conspiracy theory, and yet there are points at which it appears quite credible,” Jones says with a chuckle. “It’s an interesting take – that plays into the idea that it is more concerted than we have seen before.”
Then there’s the technology effect. In recent years, a number of algorithm changes at Facebook have served to push users away from news and into private groups, where, as the chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, wrote earlier this year, they have “the freedom to be themselves and connect more naturally”.
But those groups frequently serve to amplify misinformation, by concentrating like-minded people together and excluding any potential corrective viewpoint. And so, if you search for 5G on Facebook, the suggested groups have a theme: “Halt 5G in the South West”, “5G-MASS ACTION CAMPAIGN GROUP” and “5G – The Facts” – illustrated with an image reading “5G: Fried brains, anyone?”
Facebook has taken action against some kinds of medical misinformation on its site, acting to crack down on the more directly harmful spread of scaremongering over vaccines, but it is clear that the site’s very structure supports the spread of these concerns.
“The media landscape is now more suited to this kind of news,” Jones says. “There is a growing scepticism of the mainstream media, there is the rise of the so-called “independents”, and there is a lack of any real quality control. The viral nature of alarmist, extreme viewpoints is easier to catalyse than ever before. And the overall effect when there’s a lack of trust from authority is that people will seek out other sources.”
But Wingate-Saul has a simpler proposition. The No 1 reason for objecting to base stations, he wrote in a presentation last month, is simply that “we were not even consulted”.
“If people are upset, they will perceive a thing as more dangerous … if people perceive a thing as dangerous, they will become upset,” Wingate-Saul added. “Once people are upset, they become resistant to reason. Simply ‘explaining the data’ is not going to work. We are all immune to information we don’t want to learn.”
So Wingate-Saul’s advice to those seeking to avoid the fear is simpler. Engage with communities earlier, explain the technology and its constraints in simple non-technical terms, and “pay close attention to aesthetic design and symmetry”. If mobile phone masts are nicer, fewer people will be enraged by them, turn to the internet, and convince themselves they’re dangerous.
But it’s probably too late for that to save the reputation of 5G. The rollout is progressing at full speed, and many more sites will be upgraded or installed over the coming months, creating more frustrated residents, and perpetuating the cycle further. Eventually, some will forget and move on, with just a nagging feeling that they ought to be concerned. Others will remain dedicated, until another spark ignites the movement again.
Based on historical trends, we can expect to see 6G launched in the mid- to late 2020s, using a still higher part of the spectrum. And based on those same trends, we can expect opposition.