UK telecommunications companies have called on conspiracy theorists to stop attacking their employees and mobile masts due to the highly unscientific belief that 5G is responsible for spreading coronavirus.

Fears over the effects of wireless communications technologies date back to their invention, with conspiracists long claiming that mobile data services caused cancer and other illnesses despite no scientific evidence. But, with the roll-out of 5G coming at a similar time as the spread of coronavirus, and the growth of fringe groups on social media, conspiracy theories have gone into overdrive.

Just when we need connectivity

An innocent mast – Getty Images

Last week, mobile masts in Birmingham, Liverpool, and Melling in Merseyside were set on fire by what is thought to be by 5G conspiracists. Further attacks continued over the weekend, with at least 20 masts impacted - most of which were not 5G enabled.

Network operator EE told the Guardian that its engineers were on site assessing the cause of the fire to its 70ft Birmingham mast, but said that it “looks likely at this time” that it was an arson attack.

"To deliberately take away mobile connectivity at a time when people need it more than ever to stay connected to each other, is a reckless, harmful and dangerous thing to do. We will try to restore full coverage as quickly as possible, but the damage caused by the fire is significant."

In a public statement, Vodafone UK CEO Nick Jeffery said: “I’m saddened today to report that vandals have carried out a series of arson attacks on mobile phone masts during this time of national crisis. This is now a matter of national security. Police and counter-terrorism authorities are investigating... Online stories connecting the spread of coronavirus to 5G are utterly baseless. Please don’t share them on social media - fake news can have serious consequences."

In a joint statement, UK operators said: "Sadly, we have experienced cases of vandals setting fire to mobile masts, disrupting critical infrastructure and spreading false information suggesting a connection between 5G and the Covid-19 pandemic. There is no scientific evidence of any link between 5G and coronavirus. Fact.

"Please help us to make this stop. If you witness abuse of our key workers please report it. If you see misinformation, please call it out. Your help will make a real difference."

Elsewhere, in a widely circulated video, engineers installing fiber were told "when they turn this on, it’s going to kill everyone, and that’s why they’re building the hospitals" by the person filming the video. She continued: "Are they paying you well enough to kill people?"

Community Fibre said that it was not installing 5G equipment, and praised its employees' calm response.

BT Openreach engineers have turned to anti-5G Facebook groups to plead for the members not to attack them. Many of the groups were reported to Facebook, which initially did not remove them - but has now begun to act after increased media attention. The theories are still spreading rapidly across Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, YouTube, Next Door, and other platforms.

“We must see social media companies acting responsibly and taking much swifter action to stop nonsense spreading on their platforms which encourages such acts," the UK's Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) said in a statement.

Celebrities including singer Anne-Marie and Britain’s Got Talent judge Amanda Holden have also promoted the incorrect and harmful theory.

What they believe

In February community radio station Uckfield FM featured a segment with a 'registered nurse' which has since been widely shared. She claimed: "What 5G actually does is, it absorbs oxygen, and that is really important to know. On your oxygen molecules, the little electrons, they start to, like, oscillate.

"So 5G is absorbing the oxygen, and then your hemoglobin can't take up the oxygen, so how long do you think it's going to take the human body to fall over because it suddenly cannot take up oxygen into the cells? Every cell in the body needs oxygen, it's not going to take very long, it's probably not even going to take a minute, it's going to take seconds."

This is fundamentally incorrect, is not how 5G works, how oxygen works, or how the coronavirus impacts people. Covid-19 is also infecting people in rural communities and areas where 5G has not been deployed, including parts of the UK.

Another theory is that 5G lowers the immune system, a claim again made without any evidence. The maximum levels of electromagnetic radiation from 5G measured by regulator Ofcom were about 66 times smaller than the safety limits set by international guidelines, and 5G lacks enough energy to break apart the chemical bonds in the DNA in our cells to cause damage. Again, were it to be true, there would be a clear distinction in the number of cases and mortality between countries with 5G and those without. This is not what is happening, with Iran - a nation with no 5G at all - one of the worst hit.

Yet another theory is that 5G allows for the coronavirus to communicate with the virus across a host's body, coordinating attacks. The belief comes from a disputed 2011 research paper that theorized the ability for some bacteria to communicate using electromagnetic signals. The coronavirus is not a bacteria, and is instead a virus.

Misinformation and disinformation

There are a number of reasons why such conspiracy theories are growing, including the desire to find a scapegoat in these troubled times, the filter bubble effect of social media, and decades of underinvestment in scientific education.

But another force is more deliberate: Last year, the New York Times reported on Russian state-backed efforts to paint 5G as a danger to health.