What is the truth about 5G? Four Corners spoke to leading experts and anti-5G activists to find out
The global rollout of 5G has spawned wild conspiracy theories, and the coronavirus pandemic was the perfect environment for them to spread.
Four Corners has investigated these claims and examined the science around whether the technology is a threat to health.
What do the conspiracies claim?
One theory claimed 5G’s millimetre wave technology was secretly developed by governments as a weapon to threaten and control people.
Another conspiracy linked 5G to the emergence of COVID-19, claiming coronavirus was deliberately released so 5G could be rolled out without opposition while communities were in lockdown.
The viral claims have driven believers to hold protests during the pandemic and attack 5G mobile phone towers around the world, including in Australia — despite the fact that all of these theories were demonstrably false.
Communications and Cyber Safety Minister Paul Fletcher said that behind some of the conspiracies may be hostile governments “who have a motive to try and create instability and disorder in democracies like Australia”.
What is 5G?
5G is shorthand for the fifth generation of wireless communications technology.
The first generation was mobile voice calls, 2G brought text messaging, 3G was about data and smartphones, 4G was optimised for video calls and moving video around. 5G will usher in a world where everything is super-fast and interconnected.
Telcos like Optus, Vodafone and Telstra are already marketing 5G plans that will bring data speeds 10 times that of 4G.
But the real game changer comes early next year when Australia’s telcos will bid for a slice of what’s called millimetre wave spectrum.
Millimetre wave is a much higher frequency and promises data speeds more than 100 times faster than 4G.
For example, downloading a full-length HD movie over a 5G wireless connection would take a few seconds rather than many minutes.
Millimetre wave technology is not only faster; there’s also far less lag time — known as latency — between when a signal is sent and the device receiving the signal reacts.
This would be particularly useful with driverless cars. When a sensor detects a pedestrian and the car needs to brake instantaneously, any potential delay could be catastrophic.
Other applications include improved artificial intelligence in robots, super-efficient agriculture and remote medicine.
Why are people scared of it?
Many suspicions about 5G stem from what’s known as radiofrequency radiation.
Radiofrequency radiation is emitted at various levels from devices ranging from TVs and radios to microwave ovens, wi-fi and mobile phones.
It has been the subject of health concerns for decades.
Professor Rodney Croft is chairman of the key international body that recommends safe exposure limits for radiofrequency radiation.
He said with every new generation of technology, there’s a new wave of concern from the public.
“The radiation that’s being emitted by these devices is essentially the same as it’s always been, and essentially the same as we’ve had around with radio, for instance, AM and FM radio for many years,” he said.
5G is just another form of radiofrequency radiation. But while 4G mobile phones emit signals that can travel long distances and easily pass through walls and other structures, 5G’s millimetre waves won’t travel as far.
So, for it to work there will need to be more antennas positioned closer together. In areas of high demand like a city centre, the expectation is that there could be a 5G antenna on every street corner.
Anti-5G activists claim this will expose people to a “soup” of radiation from which they can’t escape.
But Professor Croft said the radiation from 5G wasn’t dangerous.
“This is one of the most researched physical agents in the world,” he said.
“And that’s what I guess gives us the confidence today to be able to say that we really do understand this very well and we know that there aren’t any problems.”
How did the coronavirus 5G conspiracy theory start?
The first known online appearance of the theory was tweeted on January 19 from an anonymous account that regularly posts pro-Russian government content.
That tweet linked to an article by the Russian state-owned news outlet, RT, formerly known as Russia Today.
It noted that the Chinese city where coronavirus was thought to have originated, Wuhan, also had 5G.
That tweet was barely noticed. A few days later a Belgian news outlet published an interview with a GP who suggested there might be a link between coronavirus and 5G.
The theory then kicked around online to a limited degree, but when it was picked up by notorious right-wing conspiracy website Infowars it jumped to a much larger audience.
It received another massive boost when US singer Keri Hilson shared a video of a controversial US doctor making the link at an anti-vaccination conference to her millions of followers.
Other celebrities also promoted the theory, including rapper Wiz Khalifa, who tweeted about the supposed link to his 36 million followers. It was also shared by Woody Harrelson, John Cusack and singer M.I.A.
Professor Axel Bruns from Queensland University of Technology’s Digital Media Research Centre told Four Corners the pandemic was the perfect environment for this type of conspiracy theory to spread.
“There’s a lot of rumour going around about what the crisis is, how bad it might be, how it might affect us. Not even the government institutions and others can actually answer at that point because so much is still unknown,” he said.
Membership of Australia’s largest anti-5G Facebook group surged from about 6,800 to more than 48,000 during the initial pandemic lockdown.
“People were at home and they had time to think, and they had time to ask questions that perhaps they didn’t have the headspace to do before that,” said Naomi Cook, who helps run the group.
Could ‘hostile governments’ be spreading misinformation to create division?
Australia’s Communications and Cyber Safety Minister Paul Fletcher was concerned that hostile countries could be deliberately spreading damaging disinformation.
“We’d be naive if we did not recognise the possibility that some of these claims are being generated by hostile governments or by others who have a motive to try and create instability and disorder in democracies like Australia,” Mr Fletcher said.
“We know that disinformation and misinformation has been an issue in elections in other countries. That cannot be ruled out in my view as a possible driver of some of these.”
Mr Fletcher would not name a particular country.
But among those spreading misinformation has been the US arm of Russian state-owned broadcaster RT, which has repeatedly broadcast widely discredited 5G health fears to its US audience, saying things like 5G “might kill you”.
It has been revealed that a notoriously pro-Kremlin website, Global Research, has published numerous articles spouting 5G conspiracy theories, some of which have reached Australia after being posted repeatedly by Australia’s largest anti-5G Facebook group.
Professor Bruns said this type of misinformation campaign created unnecessary fear.
“It creates disruptions. It creates protests. It creates possibly more people disobeying any lockdown orders, any social distancing orders,” he said.
“And, of course that then further damages the economy, damages the population in the first place by spreading the virus further. So, it weakens ultimately the countries that they’re addressing.”
A 5G provider could potentially shut down entire countries
Globally, there’s a huge amount at stake with 5G.
It not only promises to revolutionise daily life but is predicted to be a critical component of future defence and security systems.
China has emerged as a leader in 5G, especially via the global tech giant Huawei, which has sold its 5G technology to dozens of countries.
That is potentially a problem because 5G is expected to become the backbone of the “Internet of Things”, where everything in a country is connected via 5G, including critical infrastructure like electricity networks, and transport, health and defence systems.
Security experts fear using Chinese-made 5G componentry could allow China to “shut down” an entire country’s infrastructure during any potential future conflict.
It led the Federal Government in August 2018 to announce a ban on “high risk” suppliers of 5G technology, in effect banning Huawei from Australia’s 5G networks.
Australia is one of a minority of countries not using Huawei for 5G
Australia is part of a tiny minority to have banned Huawei from its 5G network, along with the UK, US and Vietnam.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has criticised the US push to ban Huawei, which is supplying 5G technology to Russia’s largest telecommunications company.
Huawei said more than 40 countries have signed up to use its 5G technology in their networks.
According to Dr Huong Le Thu, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, that could be problematic for Australia’s relationships in the region.
“That Huawei ban is seen in many countries as asking to choose sides. Do you want to be with team US or you want to be with team China?” she said.
“Given that Australia and a number of allies and partners in the region are trying to forge a closer security relationship and partnership, this potentially could be an issue.”
Watch the full investigation on Four Corners tonight at 8:30pm on ABC TV or livestream on the Four Corners Facebook page.