Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

5G Conspiracy Theories Trigger Attacks On Cellphone Towers


We're going to head now to the U.K., where some people are burning cellphone towers - dozens of them. They are driven by false conspiracy theories that without any evidence link the rollout of 5G technology with the spread of the coronavirus. NPR's London correspondent Frank Langfitt has this report.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: This month, people have lit cellphone towers on fire in Belfast, Birmingham, Liverpool and the English village of Melling. Gareth Elliott's a spokesman for Mobile UK, which represents the country's mobile network providers.

GARETH ELLIOTT: We've seen an escalation of attacks on mobile infrastructure. That's including masts and cabinets. In addition to that, we have also seen verbal abuse of our employees.

LANGFITT: Like this confrontation, in which a woman recorded herself interrogating workmen installing fiber optic cable in East London.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Do you know what you're doing now? You're laying 5G.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Do you know that kills people?

LANGFITT: In the video, the woman links the rollout of 5G to the coronavirus and the national lockdown.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Do you have parents?


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: When they turn that switch on, bye-bye, mama. You just admitted that you were laying 5G. So that's basically why we're all inside while you've got free reign of London, huh?


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Well, everyone will be dead. We'll all be in hospital with a breathing apparatus.

STEPHEN POWIS: The 5G story is complete and utter rubbish. It's nonsense.

LANGFITT: Stephen Powis is the national medical director for England's National Health Service. He said there's no evidence linking 5G with the coronavirus, and attacking infrastructure is ludicrous.

POWIS: The mobile phone networks are absolutely critical when we are asking people to stay at home. But in particular, those are also the phone networks that are used by our emergency services and our health workers. And I'm absolutely outraged that people would be taking action against the very infrastructure that we need to respond to this health emergency.

LANGFITT: Grace Rahman's a researcher for Full Fact, a British fact-checking organization. She says two strands of 5G conspiracy theories are circulating on the Internet.

GRACE RAHMAN: On the one hand, there's this idea that, you know, coronavirus is sort of made up, and it's a front to keep people locked in their homes while the government installs this 5G. On the other side, we have people who think that the coronavirus symptoms are actually kind of mass injury from 5G and that there's no virus.

LANGFITT: Rahman says some celebrities here have amplified the conspiracy theories. David Icke, a former soccer player and conspiracy theorist, recently aired his unfounded views on an Internet talk show.


DAVID ICKE: Where was the first Chinese city to introduce 5G just before the virus broke out? Wuhan.

LANGFITT: In fact, Wuhan was just one of the first cities in China to test 5G. And it doesn't matter anyway because there's no evidence linking the two. Rahman thinks the targeting of 5G is driven by fear, distrust and anxiety.

RAHMAN: People are frightened. People are being asked to change their lives in ways that were kind of unimaginable a few months ago. And definitely as the lockdown measures became, you know, more serious, the claims seemed to get more extreme.

LANGFITT: Rahman said false claims that cell networks damage health have been around for years. Some people believe them because things they were once told were safe, such as asbestos, turned out to be dangerous. But as one scientist put it to a local newspaper here, damaging phone masts now is like knocking a hole in your lifeboat while your ship is sinking. Frank Langfitt, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.