Who is your first stop for health advice? The world’s leading scientists, or a man who thinks “tall, blood-drinking, shape-shifting reptilian humanoids from the Alpha Draconis star system, now hiding in underground bases, are the force behind a worldwide conspiracy against humanity”?
When it comes to 5G, the lizard man – David Icke – has been winning the argument. He is the highest-profile conspiracy theorist claiming that the spread of coronavirus is linked to 5G, leading to arson attacks on base stations and the harassment of telecoms workers.
#5GCoronavirus has become one of the top trending hashtags on Twitter this month*. In contrast, I could find only one mainstream English language newspaper covering the announcement that 5G carried no known health risks. This came on 12 March from the world’s leading scientists in the WHO-recognised International Commission on Non‐Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP).
This comparison is not definitive but it confirms an anecdotal impression: conspiracy theorists’ messaging is more effective than the scientific evidence. The wireless industries need to understand why this is rather than bemoaning the stupidity of the public.
The answer will come not from talking to the scientists and engineers who understand EMF, but by looking outside the telecoms bubble. Talk to the person behind the till in the supermarket, ageing relatives or your neighbours—people who deserve our greatest respect but whose EMF knowledge may be scanty—and you will quickly find conspiracy theories. Just think how many people—scientists included—believe Princess Diana was murdered.
Why are conspiracy theories so popular? In a chaotic and complex world, where terrible human pain may have multiple causes or none at all, conspiracy theories offer a simple explanation which provides meaning. We instinctively seek meaning and try to fill any vacuum.
It was ever thus, but social media means people can be bombarded with conspiracy theories as never before. With most people in the US getting their news from social media, and other rich countries close behind, flat-earthers now have access to mass audiences. This was impossible when the traditional news organisations were the information gatekeepers.
What is wrong with the current PR strategy on EMF and health? The mobile industry has felt that engaging with unscientific claims will only give them undeserved credibility. This is a reasonable view but has failed in the face of social media and a global crisis.
For an average person sympathetic towards the 5G conspiracy theory this failure to engage feels dismissive of a genuinely-held view and exacerbates animosity towards the wireless industries. On a simpler level, it means average citizens may see thousands of conspiratorial claims on social media and almost no countervailing arguments, further undermining the science-based position.
Add to this the echo-chamber nature of social media, which makes it more difficult to sway people’s views, and you have a tough battle for the mobile industry.
But there is an answer. The sector needs to get down in the trenches and engage in some hand-to-hand combat with the conspiracy theorists. Just like the rebuttal units run by political parties at election time, every false claim needs to be met with facts, promptly and politely.
The scientific arguments are often complex when compared to the simplicity of conspiracy theories, but this is true of health arguments in many other sectors. It is time-consuming and expensive, but our respect for the vast majority of the population – from supermarket workers to our neighbours and relatives – demands that we make all possible efforts to convey the truth, rather than imagining that the argument is somehow beneath us.•
* Rated at 30.8 by Hashtagify, where 100 is the most popular hashtag on Twitter and 0 is a hashtag that is never used.