At least a dozen 5G phone towers have been set on fire in the U.K. in recent days, apparently by groups who believe the next-generation cell phone technology has caused or exacerbated the spread of the coronavirus.
Vodafone, EE, and Three UK all confirmed to VICE News on Monday that their 5G infrastructure had been attacked, with the total number of attacks and their causes still being assessed.
Videos of the attacks have been shared widely on social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, by people who have promoted conspiracy theories linking 5G to the global pandemic that has killed over 50,000 people. Some are even urging more arson attacks.
The attacks on 5G towers began last week, with two sites in Liverpool and one in Birmingham set on fire. Videos of the attacks were shared widely on social media.
“The theories that are being spread about 5G on social media are baseless and are not grounded in accepted scientific theory,” Mobile UK, the trade association for the UK’s mobile network operators, said in a statement.
Telecoms engineers, who have been designated key workers under government guidelines, are also facing verbal and physical abuse while trying to work. One video of a woman attacking workers from Community Fibre has been viewed 2.4 million times on Twitter.
Responding to the attacks on Sunday, National Health Service (NHS) national medical director Stephen Powis dismissed conspiracy theories as “complete and utter rubbish.”
Scientists have also hit out at celebrities who are promoting the debunked theories, including singer M.I.A. and actor Woody Harrelson.
Despite the fact there is zero evidence to back up the conspiracy theory, groups, videos, and comments promoting it continue to proliferate on social media.
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U.K. culture secretary Oliver Dowden will this week order social media companies to be more aggressive in their response to conspiracy theories linking 5G networks to the coronavirus pandemic.
Dowden will hold a virtual meeting with representatives from the tech giants this week after his department “received several reports of criminal damage to phone masts and abuse of telecoms engineers inspired by crackpot conspiracy theories circulating online.”
When Facebook was contacted on Friday about a group whose members were advocating for attacks against phone towers, it told those complaining that the comments did "not violate our community standards." The group was only taken down after Facebook was contacted by the media.
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However numerous other groups — both public and private — continue to proliferate on Facebook.
On YouTube, which designates conspiracy theories as “borderline content,” videos have been downgraded but will not typically be removed. On Sunday the company said it would more aggressively remove content that violates its policies, but unless a 5G conspiracy video specifically mentions coronavirus, it is unlikely to be deleted.
“To hear that crackpot theories are leading to people attacking phone masts or threatening telecom workers is sickening and it’s clearly time to act,” Julian Knight, chair of the Digital Culture, Media and Sport Committee in the U.K. parliament said in an emailed statement on Monday.
“We’ve called on the government to work with social media companies to stamp out deliberate attempts to spread fear about COVID-19 and it is right that they are being called to account for allowing disinformation on their platforms.”
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Cover: Mobile network phone masts are visible in front of St Paul's Cathedral in the City of London, Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)