5G, Coronavirus and clickbait

The mainstream media has been quick to point the finger at social media for the conspiracy theory that 5G mobile phone signals spread Coronavirus. But the mainstream media played its part too.

Here’s the Daily Star, just before people started arson attacks on mobile phone masts.

Coronavirus: Fears 5G wifi networks could be acting as ‘accelerator’ for disease

You may be getting flashbacks to when the likes of The Independent, the Daily Mail and the Telegraph covered “fears” that wi-fi and mobile phones caused “electrosmog”. Or perhaps you’d like a more damaging example, such as the “fears” that vaccines could cause autism.

The headline is important, because many people read it and don’t read further. In this case, that means they’ll go away with the impression that 5G networks (not WiFi, that’s a different thing and a different conspiracy theory) affect Coronavirus.

They do not.

They can not.

There is no possible way in which they could*.

5G signals are just radio waves. They have the same effect on viral spread as the shipping forecast from Radio 4.

Now, I know the Daily Star hardly counts as the quality press. But it’s a newspaper nevertheless, and people believe what it prints. And from the headline down, this article is constructed in exactly the same way newspapers have covered other baseless scares from the MMR vaccine and electrosmog to trans healthcare, creating the impression of a danger that does not exist.

I’ve grown to detest newspaper stories with “Fears” in the headline because they’re so frequently baseless. People may fear that if we go beyond 30mph in a train, our faces will fall off (a genuine fear from the early days of rail travel) or that if we sail our ships too far we’ll fall off the end of the world (an old favourite that’s back! Back! BACK!), but fears are not facts.

Fears also require context: is this fear credible? Is the person expressing this fear credible? Does this person have any expertise that means we should take their fears seriously? For example, if the chief medical officer fears that a particular behaviour will put people at risk of a particular virus, that’s an informed fear. Whereas if a man who lives in a bin fears that if he ventures out before midnight a magical space owl will steal his eyes, that’s a slightly different proposition.

Unfortunately in these clickbait days it’s more important for something to be popular than for it to be accurate, informed or useful; if my imaginary man-in-a-bin actually existed, you just know he’d get 15 minutes on Newsnight, a column in The Spectator and a regular guest spot on Question Time.

Back to the Star. Since publication, the original story has been been rewritten to make it clear that the “fears” are really fact-free claims by “conspiracists”. But the original gave them hundreds of words to spout gibberish, which it didn’t try very hard to correct. For example:

The theory has been met with scepticism from experts, who have pointed out that coronavirus cases have been identified in many areas with no 5G networks.

“Scepticism” means doubt and implies that there’s a debate here. There is no debate here. Experts have called the claims “crackpot”, “rubbish” and “dangerous nonsense” because there is no conceivable way in which mobile phone signals can spread coronavirus. You might as well say that “the theory that putting custard in your ear cures cancer has been met with scepticism from experts”.

Activist Louise Thomas, based in Somerset, told Daily Star Online: “We can’t say 5G has caused the coronavirus, but it might be exacerbating it.”

Is Louise a credible person to base a news story on? Does she have expertise in virology or radiobiology?

Let’s look at her Facebook. She describes herself as:

Yoga, pilates, fitness, meditation teacher Truth advocate, mother.

But Louise is the warm-up act for another activist:

Tanja Rebel, another activist and philosophy lecturer at the Isle of Wight College, told us:

What is it with philosophy lecturers and science denial? They’re all over trans medicine too, shouting LA LA LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU at doctors and the WHO. She says:

“Many studies show that Electro-Magnetic Radiation (EMR) suppresses the immune system and that it helps viruses and bacteria thrive.”

Did someone mention the WHO? Yes. Me, just a moment ago. Here they are:

In the area of biological effects and medical applications of non-ionizing radiation approximately 25,000 articles have been published over the past 30 years. Despite the feeling of some people that more research needs to be done, scientific knowledge in this area is now more extensive than for most chemicals. Based on a recent in-depth review of the scientific literature, the WHO concluded that current evidence does not confirm the existence of any health consequences from exposure to low level electromagnetic fields.

Back to our philosopher.

“So EMR and in particular 5G could act as an accelerator for the disease.”

That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works.

The article goes on:

Italy, now the country with the highest coronavirus death toll, had 5G networks installed in five cities in 2019 with plans to extend coverage throughout 2020.

You can see what the writer is trying to do here: she’s implying causation from correlation. But there is no correlation – the map of coronavirus cases in Italy bears no relation to the 5G coverage map; the technology is still only available to a handful of people – and of course there is no causation. The Italian death toll is multifactorial: an ageing population, an overloaded medical system in specific areas (notably Lombardy), inadequate testing, people not taking the danger seriously enough until it was too late.

As if that wasn’t enough of a reach:

A 2011 study from Northeastern University in Boston indicated that some single-celled bacteria, such as E.coli, may communicate with each other using “radio waves”.

First of all, bacteria aren’t viruses, so this has nothing to do with the story. Bacteria are living organisms; viruses are particles. Bacteria could be setting up video chats on Houseparty for all we know; it still has no bearing on viruses.

And secondly, oh no it didn’t. It wasn’t a study, it was a still-controversial hypothesis by theoretical physicists about a possible mechanism in which some bacteria may generate detectable radio signals.

Very little is known about COVID-19, the novel coronavirus at the heart of the current pandemic, but research has shown that viruses “talk to each other” when making decisions about infecting a host.

That’s a very misleading way to put it. Here’s Nature on that research:

when a phage infects a cell, it releases a tiny protein — a peptide just six amino acids long — that serves as a message to its brethren: “I’ve taken a victim”. As the phages infect more cells, the message gets louder, signalling that uninfected hosts are becoming scarce. Phages then put a halt to lysis — the process of replicating and breaking out of their hosts — instead staying hidden in a sluggish state called lysogeny.

That’s what we mean when we describe viruses “talking to one another”. They’re not sending each other messages on WhatsApp.

This particular monstrosity may have been in the Daily Star, but there are articles like it in all the press with increasing regularity on all kinds of subjects.  The topics and mastheads may vary, but at heart the problem is universal: all too often, mainstream media tells us to ignore the experts and listen to cranks instead. The consequences of that go far beyond a few blackened phone masts.

* Radio is a spectrum. In much the same way that there’s a difference between your lover’s breath and a hurricane, some radio waves are harmless and some are harmful. For example, X-rays and UV-A light are known to damage us.

That kind of radiation is called ionising radiation, and it lives in the petahertz and exahertz frequencies. Mobile phone signals are not ionising radiation. They are much, much lower frequencies. It’s like the difference between the sun and a light bulb. The sun emits high levels of ionising radiation. The light bulb in your kitchen doesn’t.

You can still be damaged by lower frequency radio waves, but that requires a lot of power because it works in a different way. Ionising radiation breaks cells; non-ionising radiation heats them up but only if you give it a lot of power.

Think of your microwave: it uses radio waves to generate heat, and it does that by using a lot of power at a short distance. So your ready meal is being hit with 900 watts for four minutes at a distance of ten centimetres of so in a closed and reflective compartment. The result of so much power over such a short distance is that the water molecules in the food get hot. If you climbed inside a microwave and switched it on it would do the same to the water molecules inside you. This is why you shouldn’t dry small wet dogs in the microwave.

Back to the difference between your lover’s breath and a hurricane: they’re both moving air, but only one of them can throw a cow through the front of your house.  It’s the same with mobile phones. Where your microwave is 900W, a 5G cell is around 2W to 5W; where your microwave is right next to your dinner, the 5G cell is many metres – often hundreds of metres – away. 



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