In her book, Psychology of Conspiracy Thinking [in original Psychologia myślenia spiskowego] (2016), Monika Grzesiak-Feldman cites a late-1970s study in which researchers tested the theory that people are more inclined to attribute a big cause to big events. Participants were presented with two possible assassination scenarios: in the first one the attacker shot and killed the president, in the second, he missed. Participants were more likely to believe that the attacker was part of a larger conspiracy if his attempt was successful. But let’s come back to the present and the ongoing pandemic. The popular online meme has it that the coronavirus is a perfect illustration of the butterfly effect (a Chinese man ate a bat in November and in March you have to use your elbow to open the lift), but many people believe that a big event requires a big cause, and this is where 5G comes in.
A few years ago, we saw a surge of interest in the health effects of electromagnetic fields. The public’s limited understanding of the field emitted by 5G base stations and the accumulation of unscientific beliefs had a palpable outcome. Online discussions morphed into local protests and boosted the popularity of the term ‘electrosmog’. The pandemic gave these beliefs a new life amid media reports of the burning of 5G masts in the UK, Italy and elsewhere. Quantitative analyses of social media data, for example from Twitter, suggest that this might have been up to disinformation. We have been there before. One notorious example is the emergence of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in the early twentieth century, which, by the way, were concocted by a Russian disinformation expert. I could explore in more detail how certain things are rediscovered time and time again, and describe the activity of the infamous Russian troll farms, but this is not what I want to focus on here.
When we look at the discussions happening on Facebook, we see that the subject has been picked up by many users around the world, including Poland. A quick check of the Polish users’ discussion containing the combination of words ‘coronavirus’ and ‘5G’ reveals 40,000 social media posts last month, and most of the relevant comments are far from challenging the alleged detrimental impact of 5G.
A number of narratives come to the fore:
- 5G is the direct cause of the pandemic: “Yeah, but it tends to be overlooked that the first 5G masts kicked into action (Vodafone/Huawei) in Wuhan and then in Italy and Spain. Coincidence or what?”
- The pandemic is a cover-up for the installation of base stations and the development of 5G legislation: “Coronavirus, people comply and stay inside listening to the news as 5G antennas are being put up over their heads. Videos made by my friend (and one shot with a phone camera)”
- This is a global conspiracy against humanity: 5G and the pandemic are merely tools used by the paymasters (the name of Bill Gates often crops up in this context). There are flagrant examples of conspiracy theories and related mass-produced content. Here is an excerpt of one such post:
“. . . BILL GATES: LETHAL TECHNOLOGY, CARCINOGENIC PESTICIDES AND MANDATORY VACCINATION.
The winner of the pandemic . . . is, no two ways about it, Bill Gates, a philanthropist worth an estimated $90 billion, who promotes mass vaccination, surveillance, eugenics, abortion and depopulation, and is also the top financier of the WHO! His prophetic dreams of five years ago are now becoming a reality. Strange coincidence, indeed!”
Coronavirus and 5G usher us into the territory of modern mythology. It has become common practice to reduce myths to ancient stories about community beliefs but this cultural phenomenon remains alive and well. Marcin Napiórkowski takes this subject up in his book Contemporary Mythology [original Mitologia Współczesna] (2013) inspired by the similarity he noticed between certain practices of the Kula ring (Trobriand Islands, the Pacific) described by Bronisław Malinowski and the practice of collecting plastic bottle caps for charity in today’s Poland. Napiórkowski references the work of Claude Levi-Strauss, who describes people with a mythological mind-set as ‘do-it-yourselfers’ (bricoleurs), admiring the way they succeed in describing and defining the world around them with the tools they have at hand. In the communities Malinowski visited, the indigenous people would explain the world with the help of plants, animals, familiar places, and so on. Napiórkowski points out that we do the same thing today except that we have access to a more extensive toolbox. The transmitter on the roof of your apartment block, or your friend’s Facebook post are much closer to home than the bat in a Chinese province which would remain largely unknown outside China if it wasn’t for the pandemic. In online communication, we can pick and choose from such resources, and mix them with what we have at hand. The overall goal remains the same: to understand and organize the world. Getting back to psychology, the conspiracy mindset has a similar function. Some specialists accord it a compensatory role, seeing it as a strategy deployed to deal with unpleasant ambivalence perceived as a feeling of inconsistency, absence of structure.
Now, with the pandemic dominating the headlines, one dangerous phenomenon, which is little known, overlaps with another one which tends to be poorly understood too. The same applies to technology in general. In our daily experience, we take technology for granted ‒ how many of us can explain the workings of our smartphones, let alone of the transmitters they connect to? And little has been done to raise the public’s awareness of how 5G operates. Worthwhile educational initiatives and information are hard to come by. Some may claim that ignorance and misrepresentation are a fringe phenomenon, but one look at the most popular Google searches about coronavirus in Poland is enough to notice the preponderance of the phrase ‘coronavirus and 5G’. And the steps that the leading social networking sites have recently taken to check the spread of corona misinformation seem to be lagging behind their users’ activity. It doesn’t take long to find YouTube videos making the same claims as to the ones that have been taken down. This narrative began to gain ground worldwide in early 2020, and since then multiple materials and theories have gained wide currency.
Trendwatching has recently launched a new mailing list, New World Same Humans, which seems to capture the problem perfectly. New technologies do not transform people as much as the media headlines would have it. This has been pointed out by many commentators, including Genevieve Bell, who, in her interview with Jay Hasbrouck, speaks about how anthropology can help us predict the future and deal with innovation. In nineteenth-century England, Luddites launched concerted raids to destroy mechanized looms which had replaced skilled weavers. In twenty-first-century England, 5G masts are being damaged by those who fear for their health. It would seem that history is a good teacher and that businesses and governments should give greater priority to education, but this appears a pipe dream.
Here’s hoping that the recent events will make telecom companies, technology developers and governments take a broader look at the implementation of new technologies, focusing not only on infrastructure but also on its societal impacts. But it cannot be underpinned by the kind of condescending neo-colonial attitude, but an open, honest dialogue.