Spreading Like a Virus: False Rumor That 5G Causes COVID-19

Researchers found that COVID-19 misinformation spread exponentially across the countries, much like the coronavirus itself. Credit: Frederik Lipfert

People’s fear of 5G technology is rational. Such technology does emit radiation, even if it’s at low levels. But 5G isn’t all that different from 4G, and it certainly doesn’t cause COVID-19 despite such rumors having spread rapidly across the globe.

Researchers need to better understand how misinformation like this spreads in order to hone their intervention efforts and prevent misinformed perspectives from taking root. In society’s virtual world, preventing technological misinformation, in particular, is important now more than ever.

A research team led by Elaine Nsoesie, a Hariri Institute Faculty Fellow, investigated how COVID-19 misinformation proliferated using the same epidemiological techniques for modeling disease transmission. Nsoesie, along with Nina Cesare, a postdoctoral associate at the BU School of Public Health, and other scientists from Harvard Medical School and École Polytechnique Fédérale recently published their findings in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

Elaine Nsoesie, a Hariri Institute Faculty Fellow and Assistant Professor in the BU School of Public Health, poses for a portrait. Nsoesie’s team found that the myth of “COVID-19 and 5G” spread faster than any of the other COVID-19 rumors they investigated. Credit: Boston University

The team examined the spread of COVID-19 misinformation across eight English-speaking countries, including the United States, using Google Trends. The researchers focused on myths that the World Health Organization (WHO) “busted” on its website including the relationships between COVID-19 and alcohol, ginger root, the sun, 5G, and hydroxychloroquine.

What Nsoesie and colleagues found was that some COVID-19 misinformation spread exponentially across the countries, much like the coronavirus itself.

This rapid proliferation isn’t surprising. Most people were scrambling for any sort of information on the mysterious virus in the early months of 2020. “There was such a rapid proliferation of any information at the onset of the pandemic that misinformation had a golden opportunity to enter the public conscience,” said Cesare.

Thankfully, debunking myths online seems effective in stopping their spread. As soon as public health officials at WHO responded to COVID-19 misinformation on the WHO website, the number of Google searches for that misinformation dropped significantly.

But, the team was surprised that there seems to be a consistent, global misunderstanding of 5G technology. The myth of “COVID-19 and 5G” spread faster than any of the other rumors they investigated. “I didn’t expect 5G to stand out among the misinformation as much as it did,” said Nsoesie.

What makes this even more surprising is that 5G technology isn’t brand new. Rather, it’s a continued development, based on international standards, of the communication technologies preceding it, like 4G.

“5G is the new standard for communication technology. It allows for faster communication by using different frequencies and multiple antennas,” said David Starobinski, a professor in Boston University’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “It is an evolution of communication technology rather than a revolution,” he said.

Trends in searches for “coronavirus and 5G” from December 2019 to October 2020. The black vertical line indicates when the topic was listed as a myth on the WHO website (Nsoesie et al., 2020). Credit: Nsoesie et al., 2020

Even though 5G technology isn’t entirely new, there are a few reasons why people might have believed it causes COVID-19.

For one, there is very little transparency from researchers in communication technologies that leads to institutional distrust. “I think the belief has something to do with a certain distrust in government and the ability to tie this narrative about 5G technology into conversations around government surveillance,” said Cesare. This distrust is a concern even now, as myths around microchips being put into vaccines explode on Facebook.

Another explanation for why folks might associate 5G with COVID-19 is that such technology emits invisible electromagnetic waves that people fear could impact their health. “People are much more worried about things [like radiation] that they cannot see,” said Starobinski.

While exposure to high-power radiation can be harmful to health, Starobinski assures that there have been safety guidelines on the radiation from communication technologies and 5G should be safe to use. “People have been using smartphones for years and we don’t see evidence that this radiation has caused noticeable increase in diseases or hospitalizations due to usage,” he said. He also noted that “regulators have set limits on the radiation power of 5G devices, though additional safety studies may still be warranted.”

And, such radiation can’t cause COVID-19. COVID-19 is a viral disease that comes from the coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2.

To stop the spread of similar myths in the future, experts need to consistently and clearly correct common misconceptions. And better transparency from both government bodies and researchers could prevent misinformation from ever taking root.

“We [researchers] need to humanize the conversations around misinformation and continue to share true information so that misinformation becomes less prevalent in the media,” said Nsoesie.

Reference: “COVID-19 Misinformation Spread in Eight Countries: Exponential Growth Modeling Study” by Elaine Okanyene Nsoesie, MS, PhD; Nina Cesare, PhD; Martin Müller, MS and; Al Ozonoff, PhD, CPPS, 15 December 2020, Journal of Medical Internet Research.
DOI: 10.2196/24425

5gBoston UniversityCOVID-19InternetPublic Health
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  • Y_Contributor

    Frankly, the inserted graph is nearly unreadable, I’m disappointed.

  • Not ur bitsh

    I’m so glad that everyone is so quick do dismiss and fact check that 5g doesn’t cause covid. Yes, 5g it’s totally safe because it doesn’t cause covid… yes, only retarded people think it’s unsafe.
    If someone wants to talk about true disinformation lets talk about the fact that fact checkers and media ridiculing this conspiracy theories only give the false impression that “it’s completely safe”.

    “While exposure to high-power radiation can be harmful to health, Starobinski assures that there have been safety guidelines on the radiation from communication technologies and 5G should be safe to use.” – “should be” is the right conclusion to take, although “should” is not enough, but I guess it’s the new standard, and I thought health comes first…

    From the WHO website: https://www.who.int/news-room/q-a-detail/radiation-5g-mobile-networks-and-health
    “To date, and after much research performed, no adverse health effect has been causally linked with exposure to wireless technologies. Health-related conclusions are drawn from studies performed across the entire radio spectrum but, so far, only a few studies have been carried out at the frequencies to be used by 5G.” – “Only a few”, yes it’s totally safe trust the science.

    “WHO is conducting a health risk assessment from exposure to radiofrequencies, covering the entire radiofrequency range, including 5G, to be published by 2022.”
    And yes i’m so glad that by 2022 we will have a conclusion to see if it’s safe or not.

    And what is the objective to see if it’s safe? https://www.icnirp.org/en/differences.html
    “The scope of both guidelines is very similar, providing protection against all adverse health effects, regardless of whether they are due to acute or chronic exposures, regardless of age or health status, and regardless of the biophysical mechanism responsible for the effect…” – “providing protection against ALL ADVERSE health effects, REGARDLESS…” ; If you actually read this and don’t fall for the euphemism, you can conclude that safe means “no adverse affects”, adverse is subjective, what about moderate and minor affects?

    “2.3. Operational adverse health effect thresholds

    The previous guidelines were based on adverse health effects that had been shown to be caused by RF EMF exposure. ICNIRP (2020) used the same approach, and indeed there is now a substantial body of literature that has confirmed that RF EMF exposure within the ICNIRP (1998) restrictions does not cause adverse health effects. However, the body of scientific information has not increased greatly in terms of exposures much higher than the ICNIRP (1998) restrictions, particularly in terms of thermal effects, making it difficult to determine thresholds for adverse health effects (i.e. the lowest RF EMF level that will cause an adverse health effect). Given this situation, and given that there is a strong body of literature concerning the effect of heating on health from other sources, ICNIRP (2020) has used this thermal physiology knowledge to supplement that of the RF EMF literature.” – So, within previous safety measures there where no adverse! effects caused by the Rf emf exposure, and with new studies they corroborate that, no adverse affects within the “safe spectrum”. The old studies didn’t have any info on the new range used by new tech like 5g, and they admit concerns over the adverse thermal effets reported previously. Remember, only few studies were done regarding the new 5g spectrum, and they include this few as the new safety measures threshold. Again, thermal effects are not the only possible effects, there is little mention of other effects in the website and adverse effects is not the only concern people have. If people actually knew the standards they wouldn’t be so submissive to the 5g implementation.

    Meanwhile there are plenty of studies that have found “adverse” consequences withing the current EMF in use. They are normally discarded because there is little corroboration of peers, sometimes because of contradictory results or the lack of articles about the subject. Science is not as objective as people think, political and economic interests often interfere with it. Where is money and influence to be made, have caution, “intentional mistakes” might happen.