Anti-vaxxers and Russia behind viral 5G COVID conspiracy theory

By Mark Lynas

April 8, 2020

Like the fruitless search for the coronavirus “patient zero,” we may never know where the conspiracy theory falsely linking 5G communications networks with the COVID-19 pandemic first arose. But a more important question is this: who took a fringe conspiracy theory and promoted it to a global online audience now numbering in the millions?

The answer is not difficult to fathom. Although recently taken up by celebrities and spread widely online, the 5G theory first gained prominence thanks largely to the worldwide anti-vaccination movement, which took up conspiratorial messaging originally spread by the Kremlin.

(Note: Throughout this article we will not link to anti-vaccination and Russian-controlled websites, social media posts and videos, because driving them traffic supports their revenues and influence and could worsen the damage they cause.)

How did the anti-vaxxers get involved?

You might think that this would be a difficult time for the anti-vaccination movement: a worldwide pandemic of a highly infectious disease for which there is no vaccine. This is the world anti-vaxxers apparently have always longed for, where epidemic diseases are not controlled by science and only peoples’ immune systems lie between them and a lottery of death.

In the United States, the epicenter of the anti-vaccination movement is Children’s Health Defense, a group fronted by environmental lawyer-turned-vaccination opponent Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Notorious for fear mongering about autism, MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) and the flu vaccine, CHD has expanded recently to spreading misinformation about electromagnetic radiation.

As long ago as Feb. 3, CHD launched a legal petition against the US Federal Communications Commission, warning about the supposedly “harmful radiation” released via the deployment of 5G. (As we reported in an earlier post, these fears ultimately depend on misunderstandings about the electromagnetic spectrum.)

CHD has followed up with numerous other false posts about 5G, including spreading the rumor that the COVID pandemic lockdown is being used for the rapid installation of 5G masts on schools. It also published a piece suggesting that the pandemic provides cover for a sinister “global agenda” trying to make us all “subjects of a techno-communist global government.”

Another anti-vaxxer and alternative health site, Natural News (which has already been kicked off most social media due to its extreme conspiratorial content), has spread the myth that COVID was created in a Wuhan biowarfare lab, and that 5G has been helping it spread, supposedly by somehow causing oxygen deprivation in the blood.

This is similar to the idea put about in multiple celebrity social media posts that 5G is somehow harming peoples’ immune systems and thereby predisposing them to suffer COVID-19.

Fingerprints of the Kremlin

As has been the case with many recent conspiracy theories, from the dangers supposedly posed by GMOs to some of the far-right messaging that helped elect Donald Trump, Russia has assiduously promoted misinformation with the intent of undermining trust in science and Western institutions generally.

Putin’s propaganda channels RT and Sputnik offer well-produced news-style broadcasts that serve to give legitimacy to conspiracy theories by airing them to a worldwide audience in slick-looking studio formats. As Wired has reported, as long ago as January 2019 RT was airing segments on 5G where its “correspondent,” Michele Greenstein, warned that 5G “might kill you.”

Image: EV vs Disinfo

This and other RT segments have since been repackaged by conspiracy theorist David Icke, including YouTube videos that racked up millions of views. Icke was banned from YouTube on April 7 after making numerous false claims linking 5G to the coronavirus pandemic, including the assertion that a COVID-19 vaccine would be the means for inserting a nanotechnology chip to track and ostensibly control humans. YouTube recently announced it has banned all videos perpetuating the false link between 5G networks and coronavirus.

However, the RT segment entitled “5G Wireless: A Dangerous ‘Experiment on Humanity’’ remains accessible on YouTube and has so far been viewed 1.9 million times. In May 2019 the New York Times drew attention to Russia’s war on 5G with a piece headlined: “Your 5G Phone Won’t Hurt You. But Russia Wants You to Think Otherwise.”

The NYT piece pointed out that by May 2019, RT had already aired numerous anti-5G pieces, possibly as a geopolitical ploy because Russia is behind in the deployment of advanced communications networks like 5G.

More latterly, according to the EU-funded project EUvsDisinfo, the Kremlin has been “throwing coronavirus disinformation at the wall to see what sticks.” The site has logged 39 Russian-sponsored claims that the US created COVID-19, and 17 claims that the virus was a secret plan of the global elite, even though it has so far steered away from directly linking coronavirus to 5G.

In an April 1 EU report on coronavirus disinformation, the EUvsDisinfo site revealed that it had logged more than 150 examples of pro-Kremlin disinformation on coronavirus. The pandemic is not the only subject of Russian disinformation and conspiracy theorizing: another target has beenclimate campaigner Greta Thunberg in an effort to promote climate denialism.

As one of the EU’s top diplomats, Josep Borrell, head of the EU’s European External Action Service, said recently: “Disinformation is playing with peoples’ lives. Disinformation can kill.” Whether anti-vaxxer and Kremlin-sponsored disinformation do lead to avoidable additional deaths during the COVID epidemic depends on how far their conspiracy theories are able to spread, and how many vulnerable people are sucked into believing them.