Future Tense

Fearing the Invisible

The long history behind the 5G COVID-19 conspiracy theory.

A person walks by a Verizon storefront with signs that say "5G built right for NYC."
A Verizon store advertising 5G on Sunday. 5G is not the cause of the pandemic. Cindy Ord/Getty Images

“Before every pandemic of the last 150 years, there was a quantum leap in the electrification of the Earth.”

That’s the thesis statement of a YouTube video with the innocuous title “Dr. Thomas Cowan, M.D. Discusses the Coronavirus.” The 10-minute video features a man lecturing in front of a whiteboard. It looks like any other low-budget conference video, but that thesis—that pandemics are linked to the “electrification” of the Earth—got certain people’s attention. The video, which was posted March 18, has now been watched more than 660,000 times and has inspired a rather curious, rather dangerous conspiracy theory: New 5G mobile networks are causing the spread of COVID-19.

5G mobile networks promise faster transmission speeds and lower latency. They’ve been the centerpiece of commercials from various mobile carriers, and they have become a battleground for technological dominance between the United States and China. In 2019, the Trump administration announced their plan for “winning the race” for 5G, and tech sources bemoaned that the United States had fallen behind China in 5G development. Some of the first 5G networks were activated in 2019, and that newness is how 5G somehow got linked to COVID-19 in some people’s minds. But while the circumstances of this specific conspiracy are unique, the links between mobile networks and disease are a prime example of how history repeats itself. Almost every new wireless infrastructure gets linked to disease in one form or another.

Before going through the history of communication infrastructures and health fears, it’s first worthwhile to trace how we moved from a few random social media posts to where we are now, when the U.K. has threatened to fine broadcasters that blame 5G networks for COVID-19 and some individuals have threatened broadband engineers who work on 5G. As many sources, ranging from USA Today to Reuters, have pointed out, there are no actual links between COVID-19 and 5G networks. The conspiracy doesn’t hold even a kernel of truth. But its roots are illustrative of how conspiracies spread more generally: People took two phenomena occurring at roughly similar times and made up causal links between the two. Large-scale adoption of 5G networks began in late 2019; the first identified cases of COVID-19 happened in late 2019. From there, certain groups were off to the races, with one common rumor stating that Wuhan, China, was both the first place to have an identified coronavirus case and the first city to turn on wide-scale 5G networks. (The latter likely isn’t true.) The conspiracy then spread, with more and more claims using simple correlation to argue that 5G was causing COVID-19. For example, one conspiracy that went semiviral compared a map of COVID-19 hot spots in the U.S. to places that had tested 5G networks. The map showed a clear overlap, but it really just showed major metropolitan areas. Regardless, the existence of 5G in places COVID-19 had been diagnosed was enough to fan the flames.

From there, the conspiracy spread. A Facebook post was shared a few thousand times. The YouTube video I mentioned earlier is getting close to 700,000 views. Voice memos and posts about the conspiracy were shared on platforms like WhatsApp and Nextdoor. The conspiracy even made it onto Woody Harrelson’s Instagram. By the beginning of April, the conspiracy seemed to be everywhere. People in the U.K. have even started burning down 5G towers because of COVID-19 fears.

While the 5G COVID-19 conspiracy does seem to have almost come out of nowhere, it makes a certain amount of sense when placed within the history of wireless infrastructures. In the Cowan video at the center of the conspiracy, he links pandemics to one development after another in wireless networks. His lecture starts by talking about the 1918 flu, which he argues was caused by long-range radio. (Here’s a good thread debunking that theory.) He then uses his “electrification” thesis to move through the 20th and 21st centuries (while getting some dates wrong) to the activation of 5G networks and the spread of COVID-19 in 2019. The history he tells of new wireless infrastructures leading to new pandemics was picked up all over social media and became a key part of the spread of the conspiracy. Take the tweet below as just one of many examples:

I don’t want to flippantly equate concerns about cancer and wireless infrastructure with conspiracies about COVID-19. Most research shows wireless infrastructure is safe, but some scientists disagree and argue our exposure guidelines are too lax (though that has nothing to do with causing viruses). Regardless, what is notable about the public relationship to these infrastructures is that the concerns flare up again and again every time a new infrastructure is developed. 5G will eventually win out and be widely deployed, and some day we will likely move to a sixth-generation mobile infrastructure. The protests about cancer and radiation levels and the conspiracies about wireless infrastructures and disease will then start over again. With 5G, we see history repeating itself in real time.

The human brain searches for patterns. Sometimes that helps us spot viable concerns and react accordingly. But sometimes our desire to link phenomena gets us in trouble. It leads to conspiracies that see causation where there is only the weakest correlation. 5G COVID-19 conspiracies are a prime example, and the conspiracies are more than a cute curiosity; they have real consequences. For one, part of the conspiracy is that radiation causes the virus to spread, not human-to-human contact. People who take the conspiracy seriously may not take social distancing precautions because they don’t believe humans are contagious. Secondly, these conspiracies present a straightforward solution—stop the spread of 5G to stop COVID-19—to an existential threat that has no easy solution. Finally, the conspiracies sow distrust in a technology that, like it or not, will be a major site of national investment in the coming years. Journalists have already shown how Russian intelligence agencies have spread rumors about 5G on social media to get people to distrust the technology. It wouldn’t be shocking if Russia played a role in boosting the 5G COVID-19 conspiracy as well.

Finally, it is worth asking why these links come up again and again. Is there something about wireless communication infrastructure that lends itself to concerns about everything from mind control to cancer to pandemics? Maybe there is. Maybe the fact that radio waves are all around us, invisible and intangible yet so consequential, elicits a fear in the unseen. We may never know for sure. But we do know that the 5G COVID-19 conspiracies are only the newest in a long line of concerns about wireless infrastructure, and this will not be the last time we see people trying to link a new wireless infrastructure to some kind of deadly disease.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.