The life and death of conspiracy theories

Consumers have the right to be worried about new technologies, and experts have an obligation to disperse these fears.

by Mischa Dohler


Conspiracies are born and accelerated in large crowds, and 5G is no exception —especially in the time of Covid-19. Scientists and researchers, have and obligation to communicate their findings to help debunk those theories. But what is exciting to a few of us is often boring to the masses. If we can more clearly communicate, then we can stifle any conspiracies from their roots. Consumers have the right to be worried about new technologies, and experts have an obligation to disperse these fears.

The “Gateshead Scandal”is an example of how this can happen. It was early 2018, when a man in Gateshead, UK climbed onto a lamp post to vandalize a streetlight as he was convinced that 5G antennas — which he was sure would kill everyone — were everywhere. The town council debunked the claim and, of course, 5G was not even standardized back then, let alone commercially built. In fact, the opposite happened: It quickly turned into a movement with conspiracy theories popping up everywhere. 

The conspiracy initially focused on the impact of 5G on humans. Underpinned by “scientific evidence,” reports emerged that 5G was responsible for severe health issues, cancer, and miscarriages. Diminishing populations of bees and birds was also blamed on 5G. The list of the lethal impacts from 5G was growing by the month — all while 5G was not even deployed at scale.

Why, a lot of us in the field wondered, had this movement gained momentum so quickly that it was even discussed on public TV and within government circles? The conspiracists’ videos contained sophisticated scientific equipment – to make it look credible. There was an expert, a true expert, but from adjacent fields. And then there was a celebrity – to give it wings. The trinity of scientific equipment, experts, and celebrity seems to be the perfect conspiracy cocktail.

Facts about 5G radiation and health impacts had been quantified, for some years. We can break this down by better understanding what 5G is, which frequencies and transmission powers it uses, and safeguards that have been put into place. 

In terms of capabilities, 5G follows the telecommunications trend that important performance factors improve by several orders of magnitude. Take for instance, the average data rate: In 3G it was a few tens of kB/second, in 4G it was several Mb/second, and in 5G it will be around a Gb/second. The growth in data rate is facilitated by the usage of more spectrum, which is underpinning most of the conspiracies.

There are three new frequency bands which are generally referred to as the pioneering spectrum bands: 

The first is below 1GHz and occupies a few MHz where the TV used to be. Transmission powers are lower than the massive TV towers we had before. Given there were no reported casualties from watching TV during almost a century, we can safely assume that this band is causing no harm. 

The second is in the spectral region where most wireless systems operate today, i.e. around 3.5GHz. Transmission powers, again, are modest (and more on that below). Given that numerous legacy systems, such as Wifi, microwave ovens, Bluetooth, 3G, 4G, etc., have operated globally without any reported casualties, again, we can assume that there is no harm there. 

The third operates at a higher frequency, i.e. around 26-28GHz, and is thus often referred to as millimeter wave band. Conspiracists argue that this band damages to skin and DNA. Now, while it is a high frequency for telecom, it is by a factor of a million off the ionizing frequencies and by a factor of a million off the power needed to cause such damage. Furthermore, other systems such as police radar have been using similar frequencies. Again, there have been no casualties reported over past decades; if, at all, police radar has been saving lives. 

We thus established that the frequencies used by 5G have all been used before, and no consistent impact has been recorded for decades. Let’s move on now to transmission powers. There are generally two concerns, one on the increased power used, and the other on the increasing number of base stations, thus creating more exposure. Let’s look at each separately:

Transmission powers are highly regulated, following scientific advice which is based on numerous technical and health measurements, and are overseen by various bodies globally. Generally, all transmission powers, including that of 5G, are orders of magnitude below the limits which could potentially cause any harm. Some great and easy-to-follow explanations can be found by Prof Petar Popovski or telco’s leading industry association GSMA (Groupe Speciale Mobile Association).

The number of increasing base stations is actually a good thing. It turns out that radio power decreases quickly over distance. To establish a strong link between you and the closest base station, your mobile phone and the base station need to transmit with a quickly increasing power as the distance increases. With a sparse set of base stations, you find yourself in the situation of your mobile and the base station transmitting at a maximum of the allowed (and safe) powers. With an increasing density, however, both can transmit at much, much lower power — often well below the Wifi in your home.

The information above is being quantified rigorously by various international bodies which validate science and write, as well as oversee, respective policies. The most important one is ICNIRP (International Commission of Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection). It effectively sets the standards for allowable transmission powers for telecommunications (and other) industries, based on a rigorous scientific approach. A summary video states clearly that all possible health factors have been taken into account, measurements have been taken at varying powers, and then safety factors have been introduced which are many, many orders of magnitude below what could potentially cause harm. 

5G, like Covid-19, is an example of how we need well-researched data to make informed decisions about how we understand the world around us.