On social media, thousands of Georgians have been discussing conspiracy theories about the alleged link between 5G technology and the spread of COVID-19.
The theories that the mobile technology may pose a threat to health have been circulating for years. Last year, The New York Times reported that Russian disinformation campaigns were exploiting 5G health fears. For the most part, those discussions remained fringe, garnering little engagement. The increased anxiety and confusion brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, however, has catapulted some of those conspiracies into the mainstream.
From March onward, influential celebrities around the world have been spreading 5G coronavirus conspiracies to their millions of followers. The false and misleading claims have led to material damage. In the United Kingdom, cell towers were set on fire after the conspiracies spread. Similar acts of arson have been reported in the Netherlands and Belgium.
There is zero scientific evidence that 5G technology is linked to the coronavirus pandemic. The World Health Organization has summarily debunked these conspiracies, stating clearly that viruses cannot travel via radio waves or mobile networks.
In response to the online conspiracies, social media companies have hardened their stance against coronavirus misinformation. YouTube has decided to delete videos that falsely link coronavirus to 5G, while Facebook is beginning to alert users if they have interacted with harmful misinformation about the coronavirus.
Despite these efforts, in Georgia, 5G coronavirus conspiracies continue to spread online.
Georgia joins the conspiracy discussions
Much of the 5G coronavirus conspiracies in Georgia have been fueled by a large Georgian Facebook group called “STOP 5G GEORGIA!!!,” which was created on April 7, 2020 and already has 13,436 members.
A CrowdTangle analysis showed that the Facebook group has expanded rapidly over the past few weeks. The total interactions with the group’s posts between April 7–21 approached 126,000. The most interacted with pieces are statuses and photos shared to the group.
A subset of posts to the group claimed that coronavirus would naturally spread more widely in places with access to 5G, as the technology supposedly weakens the immune system.
Group members actively shared news of arson attacks on cell towers in different countries and endorsed those responsible for setting the towers on fire.
The group’s admins also focused on mobilizing and expanding its membership. In posts to the group, admins called on society to expand it by adding more people and taking on-the-ground action, such as organizing massive protests against 5G in Georgia.
Unsurprisingly, the group also implicated two common targets of far-right, fringe, and pro-Kremlin conspiracies: billionaire philanthropist George Soros and American businessman Bill Gates. Posts accused Soros of plotting the extinction of Georgians and referred to Gates as a “bioterrorist.”
A couple of Georgian Facebook pages picked up the narratives from the group, tacking on a rhetorical question at the end: “If 5G antennas are not harmful, why are people breaking them around the world then?”
Georgian far-right group Alt-Info presented an alternative conspiracy theory involving 5G and coronavirus — blaming the United States for spreading 5G coronavirus disinformation worldwide to economically sabotage China. In a YouTube video, Alt-Info claimed that there is a war on 5G dominance between the United States and China, and since the latter was faster in rolling out 5G technology, the United States spread conspiracies demonizing the technology in order to undermine China’s success.
The 5G coronavirus conspiracies are a prime example of online disinformation leading to material damage. While social media platforms have taken steps to curb the spread of coronavirus misinformation related to 5G, the conspiracies continue to proliferate in Georgian Facebook groups, illustrating the challenges of combatting misinformation in less commonly spoken languages.