The Irish Times view on 5G conspiracy theories: Dangerous nonsense

We all have a responsibility to stop this virus of misinformation

A Garda forensics officer at the scene of the fire at a mast near Letterkenny hospital. Photograph: North West Newspix

Covid-19 is spreading rapidly, but the conspiracy theories are proliferating almost as quickly. False claims about the dangers of 5G technology have circulated for some time among conspiracy theorists and crackpots in the darker corners of the internet. But a dangerous variation on that hoax – that coronavirus is caused or spread by the ultrafast wireless technology – has begun to edge closer to the mainstream. Two mobile phone masts were set on fire in Letterkenny, Co Donegal, on Sunday night. At least 20 masts have been vandalised in the UK since the start of the pandemic, and there have been similar reports from a number of EU states. Authorities here and elsewhere believe the attacks were carried out by people who believe the technology is linked to the virus.

Conspiracy theories are as old as politics itself, but in this case the term itself is a misnomer. There is no theory. Nor is there evidence or even explanation; merely bare assertion. The International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection says there is not one scientifically substantiated adverse health effect that can be attributed to a 5G installation. The European Commission and the World Health Organisation have said there is absolutely no truth of a link between Covid-19 and 5G.

Current circumstances have enabled the spread of the hoax. Families, friends and neighbourhoods seeking to stay in touch during lockdowns has led to a rapid growth in social media groups, principally through Facebook and WhatsApp, an efficient fake news vector also owned by Facebook. That has made it easier for false claims to spread rapidly. A terrified population struggling to make sense of our dystopian daily life during the crisis has created a larger audience susceptible to this nonsense.

We all have a responsibility to stop this virus of misinformation. But the social media firms, first among them Facebook, have far more to do in regulating the content they host and ensuring that what is already a grave crisis is not made immeasurably worse by their own platforms.