There is a deluge of posts on Facebook and WhatsApp warning people that the real danger facing the world right now is not COVID-19, but 5G technology.
Some warn there is a clear link between 5G and the coronavirus outbreak, claiming the reason the virus started in China was because it launched widespread 5G services.
Others claim the symptoms of COVID-19 are not caused by a virus, but by exposure to 5G signals.
Cancer used to be the disease of choice for such conspiracy theories. However, COVID-19 is getting all the media attention at the moment, so it is only natural for conspiracy theorists to try and newsjack.
Common tricks used in such hoaxes and disinformation campaigns are the misuse of technical terms and overuse of jargon to trick people into believing that the information is credible.
Common myths being perpetuated on social media in South Africa on 5G are shown below.
Myth 1: 5G caused the coronavirus outbreak
This myth also appears in the form of a claim that 5G created the SARS-CoV-2 virus, or that 5G is to blame for the symptoms COVID-19 patients are experiencing.
5G radio waves do not cause diseases or create viruses. There is also no evidence to suggest that radio waves would cause a virus to mutate.
At their most basic level, 5G radio waves are no different from those used in other wireless technologies. It therefore makes no sense that it would suddenly create a virus or cause an outbreak, given that such waves did not cause these problems before.
Zweli Mkhize, the South African Minister of Health, was asked at a media briefing on 31 March to address claims that 5G caused the coronavirus.
“[COVID-19] is an organic infection that is based on a living viral agent,” Mkhize stated. “It’s not something you can link with any kind of technology. The form of spread is well described scientifically.”
Mkhize explained that the scientific community has tracked the origins of the virus and found that it came from animals.
“It was a zoonotic transmission from animals to human beings, which is what caused the problem,” said Mkhize.
Mkhize said the spread of fake news undermines the fight against the coronavirus. “We need to use facts to fight coronavirus.”
Myth 2: 5G is 10,000 times the strength of 4G
Misinformation about technology will also use statements like “5G is 10,000 times stronger than 4G”.
If the conspiracy theorist argues that 5G towers will pump out much higher power signals than 4G, that is simply wrong. Countries around the world regulate the maximum transmission power of wireless signals.
Should this claim be about using higher frequencies, that is a red herring that plays on people’s immediate fear when they hear the word “radiation”.
Yes, cellphones and other wireless devices use electromagnetic radiation to transmit signals using certain frequencies. However, not all radiation is bad.
Normal AM/FM radio and TV signals – which have been around for decades – also rely on electromagnetic radiation.
The frequencies that all these technologies operate at fall under non-ionizing radiation, which means they cannot cause DNA damage that could result in cancer.
Myth 3: 5G uses higher frequencies than 4G, which are dangerous
As with many hoaxes, there is a grain of truth to this myth. There was a big push from inside the wireless industry to associate short-range “millimetre wave” technology with 5G.
These extremely high frequencies fall between 6GHz and 300GHz, which are much higher than the 900MHz to 3.5GHz frequencies that South African networks operate on.
However, there is no evidence to suggest that operating networks at these frequencies is dangerous. Satellite TV services beam signals from space at frequencies of between 10GHz and 12GHz and conspiracy theorists don’t seem to have a problem with that.
Unless you are talking about x-rays and gamma rays, frequency is not important. Radio waves, like those used by mobile networks, radio stations, and DStv, are known as non-ionising radiation.
Another problem with this myth is that despite the hype, commercial 5G networks all over the world are not running on extremely high frequencies. They are actually running on similar frequencies to 2G, 3G, and 4G networks.
This is because there are major drawbacks to using extremely high frequencies for your wireless network. Higher frequencies give you less coverage per cellular site than lower frequencies. Lower frequencies also penetrate walls better, giving you better coverage in your house.
The reason for the excitement over mmWave is because there is a lot of unused bandwidth in the frequencies between 6GHz and 300GHz.
Myth 4: Cellphone networks are “building a global microwave oven”
This is another frequency-based myth.
Normal home microwaves use 2.45GHz radio waves to cook food and heat liquids. Home Wi-Fi networks run at the same frequency as a microwave – 2.4GHz.
You will find it difficult to heat a glass of milk by placing it on top of your router, though.
Once again, the issue is not about how high the frequency is but about how much power the waves have. Power is measured in Watt (W) and frequency is measured in Hertz (Hz).
The two have nothing to do with one another.
The transmit power of your Wi-Fi router is low — between 0.1W and 1W. For a Wi-Fi network operating at 2.4GHz, ICASA regulations state that the maximum transmit power is 0.1W.
The power of a standard microwave oven, on the other hand, is up to 900W. That is 9,000 times the maximum power allowed for a 2.4GHz Wi-Fi router.
Aside from the power restrictions on wireless transmitters, electromagnetic radiation obeys the inverse-square law. This is a law of physics which essentially states that if you double the distance between you and a cellphone tower, you quarter the power density or radiation that you are exposed to.
Myth 5: China got hit badly with COVID-19 because it has 5G coverage
This myth is based on a press release issued by Chinese mobile networks in November 2019 stating they had launched the world’s largest 5G network.
However, there are several other commercial 5G networks that have been operating for some time.
South Korea rolled out 5G before China did and stated that it had over one million 5G subscribers by June 2019. Why didn’t the virus originate there then?
Conspiracy theorists can also not explain why the virus didn’t originate in Ireland, where commercial 5G services have been available since August 2019.
Additionally, networks in Finland have had commercial 5G deployments since June 2019.
Closer to home, Vodacom announced the launch of commercial 5G services in Lesotho in August 2018. It is curious that the virus didn’t start there when, according to the myth, it should have such a head start.
Beware hoaxes, disinformation, and fake news
The spread of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus and South Africa’s lockdown are both rapidly-developing topics. This is fertile ground for hoaxes, fake news, and disinformation.
There are those who will exploit the uncertainty of the situation to try and convince you that something false is true.
There are also many people who have convinced themselves that some elaborate conspiracy is more likely than the scientific explanation for what has happened – a dangerous coronavirus naturally mutated to transmit from animals to humans.
Any information that is forwarded to you without context or source should either be dismissed or thoroughly interrogated before you do anything with it.
Please do not forward warnings, messages, or statements from people claiming to have some kind of inside information without being able to verify who the source is. This is regardless of whether the message is a text, video, or voice note.