by James Temperton-Wired

It started with one doctor. On January 22, Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws published an interview with Kris Van Kerckhoven, a general practitioner from Putte, near Antwerp. “5G is life-threatening, and no one knows it”, read the headline.

One scientifically-baseless claim in this article, published in a regional version of the paper’s print edition and since deleted from its website, sparked a conspiracy theory firestorm that has since torn through the internet and broken out into the real world, resulting in fires and threats. Van Kerckhoven didn’t just claim that 5G was dangerous: he also said it might be linked to coronavirus.

At the time, the outbreak was a comparative speck. It had claimed nine lives and infected 440 people, almost all of them in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Under the heading “Link met coronavirus?” the Het Laatste Nieuws journalist pointed out that since 2019 a number of 5G cell towers had been built around Wuhan. Could the two things be related? “I have not done a fact check”, Van Kerckhoven cautioned, before piling in. “But it may be a link with current events”. And so the fuse was lit.

Van Kerckhoven’s comments were quickly picked up by anti-5G campaigners in the Dutch-speaking world, with Facebook pages linking to and quoting from the article. Here, they claimed, was proof of something very dark indeed. Within days, the conspiracy theory had spread to dozens of English-language Facebook pages. But the conspiracy theory that Van Kerckhoven was peddling isn’t new, it has been bubbling away quietly for decades in unfounded concerns about high-voltage power lines in the 1980s to mobile phones in the 1990s. In coronavirus, such concerns had found a new hook. “Because the quotes were unfounded, we withdrew the article within a few hours,” says Het Laatste Nieuws editor Dimitri Antonissen. “We regret the fact that the story was online for a few hours,” he adds. “Unfortunately with conspiracy theories popping up on several places, this does not stop a story from spreading.” And spread it did.

On YouTube, obscure online talkshow hosts and vloggers started revealing “the truth” about 5G and coronavirus, racking up tens of thousands of views. Posts on Facebook made similarly outlandish claims, receiving only a few thousand views from a familiar and welcoming audience. For some time, the conspiracy theory would bounce across this echo chamber. But some weeks later, it started to break out, propelled by engagement algorithms that were smart enough to spot a viral trend but dumb enough not to notice the idiocy of its content.

From those obscure beginnings, the conspiracy theory has now been pushed by celebrities with hundreds of thousands or millions of social media followers including boxer Amir Khan, singer Anne-Marie, actor Woody Harrelson, former Dancing on Ice judge Jason Gardiner, pop star Keri Hilson, former Made in Chelsea star Lucy Watston, and TV personality Amanda Holden – the latter of whom claims she “accidentally” tweeted a link to a since-deleted anti-5G petition on Said petition, which at the time had more than 110,000 signatures, erroneously claimed that the symptoms of exposure to 5G are “very much” like the symptoms of coronavirus.

In recent days, a number of 5G masts across the UK have been set on fire in apparent arson attacks. According to The Guardian, at least 20 mobile phone masts have been vandalised as a result of 5G disinformation in recent days. Videos of these attacks have gone viral on social media, further adding to the anti-5G fervour. At the government’s daily coronavirus press briefing on April 5, cabinet office minister Michael Gove described the 5G conspiracy theory as “dangerous nonsense”, while the national medical director of the NHS, professor Stephen Powis, said it was “the worst kind of fake news”.

Van Kerckhoven’s scientifically baseless comments don’t exist in a vacuum. In fact, they exist in sludge of conspiracy theories that have been shared millions of times on social media. Sploshing about this sludge are six main coronavirus conspiracy theories: that 5G is, somehow, dangerous; that 5G worsens the effects of coronavirus by weakening your immune system; that 5G outright causes coronavirus-like symptoms; that the coronavirus lockdown is being used as cover to install 5G networks; that Bill Gates had something to do with it; and, finally, that this is all an Illuminati mass-murder plot. None of these conspiracy theories have a shred of truth in them, while some are outright dangerous.

Almost all of the conspiracy theory posts linking 5G to coronavirus make use of tired, debunked tropes about non-ionising radiation, chemtrails and “deep state” plots to use vaccines to control people and remotely shut down their organs. Most of the time, such unsubstantiated and outlandish claims remain more or less hidden inside the communities that believe in them. But with coronavirus as a peg, they were always bound to go viral. “The coronavirus has created the perfect environment for this message to spread,” says Josh Smith, senior researcher at Demos, a think tank. “Like many conspiracy theories, the idea that 5G is to blame for the uncertain, frightening situation we find ourselves in is a comfort. It provides an explanation, and a scapegoat, for the suffering caused by this pandemic; as well as – cruelly – suggesting a way we might stop it: take down the masts and the virus will go away.” If only it were that simple. And, worryingly, the conspiracy theories themselves aren’t as simple as they first appear.

Amongst the conspiracy sludge, one voice stands out. For more than a year, propaganda broadcaster RT has been attacking the roll-out of 5G. In one news segment, published on YouTube in January 2019 and with nearly two million views, RT correspondent Michele Greenstein explains that 5G has just one catch: “it might kill you”. Greenstein’s scientifically-baseless rant is part of a coordinated and sustained attack against 5G by RT. Greenstein alone has reported versions of the same 5G “health risks” conspiracy theory at least ten times since the start of 2019. In April of last year, RT erroneously claimed that children exposed to 5G suffered from cancer, nosebleeds and learning disabilities. A declassified US intelligence report, released in 2017, shows that RT videos on YouTube average one million views per day, higher than any other news outlet. While RT has never outright linked 5G to coronavirus, it has played a role in adding legitimacy to conspiracy theories surrounding the technology. As The New York Times reports, RT’s disinformation campaign against 5G – seemingly created to hinder the global roll-out of the technology so Russia can catch up – has since spread to a network of blogs and social media accounts, where it has been decoupled from Moscow’s propaganda firehose.

And it doesn’t stop at 5G. On January 29, RT’s Greenstein opened an afternoon news show with a five-minute monologue asking viewers to question the role of Bill Gates in the coronavirus pandemic. “Maybe this is something to consider when you’re reading headlines about how the Gates foundation is pledging money to fight the coronavirus,” she says. “Not only is it pledging money in China and in Africa to contain the virus, it’s also involved in finding a cure.” While Greenstein stops short of accusing Gates of somehow planning the coronavirus outbreak, RT’s winks and nods have added fuel to another conspiracy theory that has also gone viral. And as the outbreak has spread, so too, seemingly, has Russia’s disinformation campaign. A European Union report released on April 1 highlighted 150 instances of pro-Kremlin disinformation about the coronavirus outbreak. Russia denies these claims. Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, has urged major technology companies to do more to stop the spread of coronavirus disinformation online. It’s an unenviably complicated challenge, but one that is being comprehensively failed.

From Putin to the people, coronavirus disinformation has been propelled across the internet at remarkable speed by the algorithms of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Until early February, the conspiracy theory linking 5G to coronavirus had mostly been circulating through anti-5G groups, with around 1,000 posts garnering some 45,000 interactions, according to data from Facebook-owned social media analysis platform CrowdTangle. Then, on January 30, the far-right conspiracy theory website InfoWars weighed in: “5G launches in Wuhan weeks before coronavirus outbreak”, the headline explained, with the story claiming it “connects the dots” between the coronavirus, the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation and Wuhan’s recent launch of 5G. Experts, InfoWars adds, are warning that 5G could cause “flu-like symptoms”. On February 1, ZeroHedge, a conspiratorial financial blog, claimed that coronavirus could be an “artificially created bioweapon”.5G health risks are the internet’s new favourite conspiracy theory

In some of the most obscure corners of Facebook and YouTube, the conspiracy theory grew even more outlandish. Amandha Vollmer, a “mompreneur” and apparent anti-vaccination campaigner who runs an alternative medicine store in Ontario, Canada, posted videos to Facebook and YouTube, claiming that the tragic death of Kobe Bryant and his daughter in a helicopter crash was in fact an Illuminati blood sacrifice ahead of a mass murder plot – i.e. coronavirus – that would allow the cult to introduce a dangerous new vaccine. Vollmer also references the scientifically-baseless conspiracy theory that 5G is linked to coronavirus and talks about coronavirus-related disinformation peddled by QAnon, a far-right conspiracy theory alleging a “deep state” plot against US president Donald Trump. Versions of the same video, posted on Facebook and YouTube in late January, have been viewed more than 28,000 times.

By mid-February, coronavirus conspiracy theories, especially those linking it to 5G, were starting to gain real traction on social media. On February 19, the page Waking Times, which has been on Facebook since 2011 and has more than 600,000 followers, shared a post claiming there were “disturbing connections” between 5G “and the men who are developing vaccines for coronavirus”. The post was shared 1,700 times and received more than 800 comments and interactions. On other conspiracy theory posts, collectively shared thousands of times, commenters link to YouTube videos that claim to expose “new facts” about 5G and coronavirus. Collectively these videos have received hundreds of thousands of views and hundreds of comments. One YouTube video linking coronavirus to 5G has been viewed almost 900,000 times.

On March 18, Darrell Wolfe, a specialist in “natural medicine” posted a video to his Facebook page, which has 41,000 followers, in which he claims coronavirus could be a “5G prison for children”, with global lockdowns being used by authorities as a ruse to install 5G infrastructure in schools. The video, which is titled “Coronavirus – 5G Prison For Children”, has been viewed more than 95,000 times and is not flagged as fake or misleading by Facebook. By the middle of March, various conspiracy theories linking 5G to coronavirus were spreading through Facebook. A post from an anti-5G group in Ireland claimed that while people were “distracted by the coronavirus” companies were “working flat out” to install new 5G masts. The post has been shared 1,800 times and received more than 1,500 interactions. Several Facebook posts from late-March link to a YouTube video that makes similar claims about coronavirus being a “distraction” to install 5G infrastructure. One version of this video has been viewed nearly 900,000 times on YouTube. A video of a woman confronting two contractors installing fibre cables, which has been viewed more than a million times on YouTube, also went viral on Facebook. The woman in the video makes baseless claims that they are installing 5G as part of a plot to kill people. On Facebook, one version of the video has received more than 700 comments and 600 shares.

As with Van Kerckhoven, many of the conspiracy theories around 5G and coronavirus lean heavily on supposed experts. A video of a lecture given by Thomas Cowan, a physician from California, claims that coronavirus is the result of poisoning caused by 5G. One version of this video, which has been posted to YouTube a number of times, has more than 640,000 views. Another version has almost 600,000 views. Cowan’s talk was given on March 11 at the Health and Human Rights Summit, an anti-vaccination conference, in Tucson, Arizona. The event was headlined by Andrew Wakefield, the discredited British ex-physician and anti-vaccine activist. Cowan’s talk has also been shared widely on Facebook, receiving tens of thousands of shares, comments and views.

In a Facebook post on March 30, the attorney and anti-vaccination activist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., son of Robert F. Kennedy and nephew of former US president John F. Kennedy, also shared the conspiracy theory linking 5G to coronavirus. Global lockdown, he said, was stopping people from protesting to prevent “5G robber barons from microwaving our country and destroying nature”. The post has been shared more than 11,000 times and received almost 8,000 interactions. A video attached to the post that makes similar claims has been viewed almost 500,000 times.

To date, more than 4,800 Facebook posts receiving more than 1.1 million interactions have in some way linked coronavirus and 5G. David Icke, the ex-footballer and prominent conspiracy theorist with more than 240,000 Twitter followers and 782,000 YouTube subscribers, has also uploaded numerous videos and social media posts linking coronavirus to 5G. One, titled “Covid 19′ And 5G – What’s The Connection?” has been viewed almost 400,000 times. Social media analysis by fact-checking organisation Full Fact has found similar conspiracy theories going viral in France and Greece, racking up tens of thousands of interactions, shares and views on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. On April 5, a YouTube spokesperson told The Guardian it was taking steps to limit the spread of the 5G coronavirus conspiracy theory. The UK culture secretary, Olivier Dowden, has said he will hold talks with the major technology platforms to reiterate the importance of tackling disinformation.

The level of interest in the coronavirus pandemic – and the fear and uncertainty that comes with it – has caused tired, fringe conspiracy theories to be pulled into the mainstream. From obscure YouTube channels and Facebook pages, to national news headlines, baseless claims that 5G causes or exacerbates coronavirus are now having real-world consequences. People are burning down 5G masts in protest. Government ministers and public health experts are now being forced to confront this dangerous balderdash head-on, giving further oxygen and airtime to views that, were it not for the major technology platforms, would remain on the fringe of the fringe. “Like anti-vax content, this messaging is spreading via platforms which have been designed explicitly to help propagate the content which people find most compelling; most irresistible to click on,” says Smith from Demos.

He argues that while social networks have had success in removing content related to terrorism and child sexual exploitation from their platforms, they are continually failing to grapple with disinformation. “The dangerous messaging around 5G highlights the urgent need for a process for identifying and removing harmful misinformation, driven by those who are experts in relevant fields, but also with public knowledge and consent,” says Smith. But, to date, social networks have once again failed to tackle a disinformation crisis running riot on their platforms.

James Temperton is WIRED’s digital editor. He tweets from @jtemperton