The comments of a TV presenter, Eamonn Holmes, about the conspiracy theory linking 5G technology with Covid-19 stirred up controversy in the UK yesterday. This is what he said in response to a segment from one of his show’s presenters which stated that the conspiracy was “not true and incredibly stupid”.
“I totally agree with everything you are saying but what I don’t accept is mainstream media immediately slapping that down as not true when they don’t know it’s not true.
“No-one should attack or damage or do anything like that, but it’s very easy to say it is not true because it suits the state narrative.
“That’s all I would say, as someone with an inquiring mind.”Eamonn Holmes, ITV Good Morning Show, 13th April 2020.
To take Eamonn Holmes’ own framing, we should not just slap him down for making his comment but also look at whether any truths are contained within it.
Not the truth that 5G causes Covid-19, as it obviously does not, but the truth that some people may be motivated to say this because of their views of the ‘state’. It is these questions of motivation that we should be considering in much greater depth and that I want to explore here.
People love stories. We all use them all of the time to explain and justify things that we feel about the world.
I prefer to use the word ‘feel’ rather than ‘believe’ as there is some sense that ‘believing’ depends on an assessment that something is true. And this takes us down the path of thinking that someone may change their ‘beliefs’ when presented with sufficient facts.
Let me illustrate the difference I see between ‘believing’ and ‘feeling’.
If I am angry at my neighbour because I ‘believe’ they are responsible for noises that disturb me at home, then this might be resolved by my neighbour proving that it was someone else who made the noise. They present their evidence, I revise my belief, and we can all move on.
But if I am angry at my neighbour because I have hateful feelings towards them and blame them for the noises because of that hate then they will not be able to change my view whatever proofs they present. I will either dismiss the proofs out of hand or, if I decide to accept them, then I will find other justifications for my hatred so things remain unresolved.
Responses to the distribution of harmful misinformation (and 5G-Covid-19 certainly fits into this category) are often based on the idea of shifting people’s beliefs in whatever nonsense is doing the rounds.
The typical tools are suppression and challenge.
Platforms are asked by governments to suppress the content based on the idea that fewer people will believe it if fewer people see it.
Platforms may be uncomfortable with suppression (for various reasons that are the subject of fierce debate) and propose tools that will rather support challenges to the misinformation.
Both of these approaches focus on the debate around the issue as it is presented. In this case, people are primarily interested in claims that 5G is somehow linked to Covid-19. Suppression prioritises removing content that makes these specific claims and challenge looks to place counter-arguments in places where the claims are being made.
What neither approach does is to question whether the claims themselves are the main event.
Looking at the 5G Covid-19 conspiracy, we can hypothesize a variety of reasons for why people feel like getting behind this. We would need research to understand the extent to which each of these is a true motivation for different individuals and groups. But having these in mind even descriptively may help us in framing policy responses.
These are presented in no particular order and in a spirit of ‘inquiry’ (per Eamonn) rather than being dismissive of any people who hold these views.
Motive 1 – objection to local cell site construction. In some countries including the UK, this is known, somewhat disparagingly, as ‘NIMBY’ism (Not In My Back Yard), We should not overlook how powerful a force this can be as many local elected representatives will testify. People often do not like industrial structures being built near to their homes and cell towers can be ugly and intrusive.
If you feel that a local site should not be built then you need to construct a narrative for why it is a bad idea. The ‘damages our health’ narrative is one of the most powerful and has more moral force than others like visual impact and damage to local property prices.
Rather than debating the effects of non-ionising radiation, the most meaningful action for this group may be to address local planning questions. Are the sites really optimal or can some be moved? Can they be made visually less ugly? Is the construction being done sensitively to minimise traffic and noise? etc. .
Motive 2 – desperation for a path back to normality. We have seen health concerns raised about other forms of wireless communication over the years. Some of these claims about the supposed impact of radio waves are repeated in the current debate but there is this special new twist of an alleged link to the Covid-19 virus. This is in a climate where people are being told on a daily basis that their lives are going to be up in the air for an indefinite period of time.
A narrative that tells you there is a specific quick fix can be powerfully attractive in this specific climate. If the 5G claims are true then all we have to do is halt its deployment and life will return to normal. If I am desperate for a return to normality then I feel good about something, however improbable, that may offer that prospect.
For this group, the most important countervailing forces may lie in what you hear from the authorities about the future. For example, French President Macron yesterday set out a path that is tough but at least clear for people in France. This kind of intervention, if trusted, could reduce the motivation for people to sign up for other kinds of quick fix.
Motive 3 – immediate family welfare. There can be nothing more devastating for most people than the thought that they allowed some preventable harm to happen to their nearest and dearest. We can again underestimate the strength of this feeling when trying to counter with appeals to the common welfare.
This feeling leads people to demand what is often impossible – to definitively ‘prove’ that something is safe. There are two sides to this equation as there are benefits to weigh against the risks. But the debate can often end up pitching personal/family risk against a societal benefit.
We have seen this family vs society dynamic in arguments over vaccination for childhood diseases. It will be interesting to see whether arguments about a Covid-19 vaccine, when it is available, play out differently as there will be a clear personal/family benefit to getting that particular vaccine.
In the case of 5G, people may feel that there is little benefit for their family who are getting by fine on 4G and that the case is being rather built on there being a societal need for the upgrade. Given this perceived lack of family benefit, they are demanding very high levels of ‘guarantee’ in relation to the risks. As the scientific method is not predisposed to proving negatives, governments are hesitant to state that something is 100% safe and beyond any challenge for all time.
This can leave people weighing up the equation as being between little benefit on one side and significant risk on the other when the reality is the reverse. The challenge lies in how to get people to the point where they ‘feel’ the equation has flipped so that 5G is worth any actual risk.
A factual explanation to someone as to what the ‘real’ benefits and risks are may work for some people where they are open to persuasion. But for others, doubts will remain and data may count for less then their lived experience.
Multiple approaches are likely to be needed here around the core principles of speaking to people in language that is both truthful and on their terms. For some people, comparisons may be helpful so we would look at where we have made other decisions trading risks against benefits. For others, it may be the use of analogies to help them to understand why science is confident that the technology is not harmful. Others may be interested in the specific benefit that a technology will deliver to their children (and not just wider society) over the next 20 years.
There is no disguising the fact that debates that touch on this principle that we should above all ‘do no harm’ are hard. It is the question we find at the heart of many policy debates as legislation is often precisely about codifying the trade off between risks and benefits of particular behaviours for both individuals and wider society. The broader debate about Covid-19 and policy responses shows how important it is for us to develop the capacity to do this.
Motive 4 – distrust of government. This is a ‘meta’ feeling that can come into play for a whole host of issues way beyond technology. It is commonplace for surveys to show that trust in government varies between countries and political factions. And sometimes there are other players, like large corporations, that seem to stand in the same mistrusted shoes as governments. But underlying this motive whatever the local variant is a feeling that some large and powerful entity has a hidden agenda and will harm you to advance this.
In the case of 5G Covid-19 there are many potential candidates for entities that people feel could be working to such an agenda. This broad spread allows more people to project their concerns about power in the world onto their preferred target. And precisely because there are so many targets there is a higher level of risk that other entities will jump in as they see an opportunity to attack a common enemy.
If we look at a ‘normal’ conspiracy theory such as claims that a vaccination program is there to benefit pharma companies with the cooperation of a corrupt medical profession and government, we see that most entities are aligned with each other against the conspiracy. You do not see governments, medical bodies and pharma companies supporting claims against each other and there is broad international consensus on this.
With the conspiracies around Covid-19 we see people associated with governments more or less overtly accusing other countries of having a hand in the disease. And with 5G there is a background of concern about one of the key players, Huawei, that is precisely centred on the idea that there are hidden agendas at play. The pre-existing hidden agenda claim is about foreign government surveillance rather than disease but it is a relatively small leap for some people to make from one (authoritatively supported) agenda to another. (NB This is not a rationale for dismissing any concerns about surveillance but an observation about a relevant factor in this 5G conspiracy).
There is a perennial challenge in responding to distrust of government/establishment entities in that it is very hard for the very powerful bodies who are the targets to mount an effective self-defence. And any independent voice who does defend them may find themselves rapidly lumped in with the establishment as a ‘sell-out’.
Here the most effective response may be containment. The level of influential support for a claim does matter. In the case of childhood vaccination, it has an impact when community leaders and people who credibly present as medical experts sign up to this being harmful. Conversely, when all the authoritative voices in a community sign up to support vaccination then this will influence take-up rates even if some people remain unconvinced.
A priority here should be to narrow the space within which the conspiracy is considered legitimate. Signing up as many influential entities in the community is key to this narrowing.
We would expect all the major political parties to say 5G Covid-19 is a crazy conspiracy but it matters that all the smaller ones do as well. It may be tempting for a smaller party to jump on a bandwagon and defend this by saying they are giving a voice to the powerless but it is really damaging if they do so. There will be a huge difference between how people feel about claims that are robustly rejected by parties covering 90% of the political spectrum than if only 60% reject them while 40% are ambivalent or even supportive.
Local leaders, whether secular or religious, also have a huge role to play here. We should recognise how hard this can be. The instinct of a local community leader is to take the concerns of community members seriously and be supportive of them. Providing them with the tools they need to push back on conspiracies like 5G Covid-19 is non-trivial but should be a priority given the impact it will have.
This is not just about shipping out reams of accurate information. Community leaders also need support in developing the kind of inter-personal skills that work best for ‘hard conversations’. Many leaders have these skills inherently (that’s how they got to be leaders) but would benefit from the kind of high quality training that is generally taught to people in companies rather than community settings.
Motive 5 – distrust of technology. This is an odd one as many critics gleefully point out that people will organise their protests against communications infrastructure using all the modern communications tools at their disposal. We should resist the temptation to gloat and recognise that we often grip our devices with hands that are, metaphorically, tattooed with L-O-V-E and H-A-T-E across the knuckles.
We absorb a rhetoric around 5G that tells us it is going to change everything. It will allow us to move into a world of smart devices that will always be connected. We have to trust that this will be a better world and most of us will give the technologists the benefit of the doubt most of the time.
But we also receive a continual feed of concerns about the negative impact of technology and, most powerfully, may have direct experience of this in our own lives. If people in our families or close social circles have suffered from harmful uses of existing technology then this will shape how we feel about adding more technology like 5G (whose very name tells us that it is ‘more’ than 3G or 4G).
Progress in giving people confidence around the safety and security of communications technologies would be effective in addressing this motive. Governments often cite ‘building confidence in the digital economy’ as a rationale for regulation in areas like data protection and online harms. This may have limited impact on those who distrust government but for many others this regulation will be reassuring. If people genuinely feel that services are safe and getting safer because of good regulation then this may make them less inclined to sign up for conspiracies related to new technologies.
Other Motives. There are two further motives that are relevant for the ‘professional’ distributors of misinformation – financial gain and foreign state interests. These are important but less interesting for this particular effort to understand the feelings that cause conspiracies to gain traction. The people who push misinformation to make money or because they are part of a government agency are not motivated by feelings about the matter in hand.
In the context of 5G professional content producers may try to exploit the feelings that I have described above but they are not themselves acting for these motivations, A distant professional originator of a campaign against a local cell site has no feelings about that tower but will have strong feelings about money they get from web traffic, if commercially motivated, or the praise they get from their superiors, if working for a government.
There is no value in using mitigating measures with professionals. If the public will is there to stop their activity then suppression is the only realistic strategy. This introduces motivation as a key factor in deciding on a response to a particular player.
In the local cell tower example, there may be significant value in talking to a genuine local group organiser about planning concerns. But if the content is actually coming from a remote professional then this makes no sense. Factoring in motivation is hard as ‘genuine’ and professional content may look identical and attribution may be complex but it has to be attempted if the effort if the goal is real resolution of the issue.
So our friend Eamonn Holmes was partly right in flagging the question of attitudes to the state but entirely wrong in the conclusion he drew from this – that this provided a reason to question the science.
If the real issue is a feeling of distrust of the state then addressing this is more interesting than the particular expression of that feeling, which is linked to the 5G Covid-19 conspiracy today but may attach to something else tomorrow.
We can hypothesize other feelings that are also pulling people into expressing support for this particular conspiracy. These are quite varied and each requires its own set of responses if we wish to reduce the numbers of people who feel that this conspiracy speaks to their interests.
Summary :- we should try to understand and respond to the motives for people feeling supportive of the 5G Covid-19 conspiracy theory. A debate about the issues presented on the face of the conspiracy may address the what but the why that is much more important.