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Facebook, YouTube Crack Down on Conspiracy Theories Linking 5G to Coronavirus

By Richard Adhikari
Apr 8, 2020 10:08 AM PT
facebook and youtube have taken steps to curb conspiracy theories linking 5g to coronavirus

Facebook and YouTube are cracking down on the pervasive conspiracy theories linking the spread of coronavirus to 5G wireless technology.

Facebook on Monday announced it would begin to actively remove false claims that link COVID-19 to 5G and could lead to physical harm.

Facebook-owned WhatsApp has reduced the number of accounts users can forward chats to from five to one.

"We are taking aggressive steps to stop misinformation and harmful content from spreading on our platforms, and connect people to accurate information about coronavirus," a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement provided to TechNewsWorld by company rep Andrea Vallone.

Facebook "will continue to work closely with governments and other tech companies to remove harmful misinformation," the spokesperson noted. The company has partnered with health authorities like the World Health Organization and the UK National Health Service to connect people to the latest official guidance.

Meanwhile, Google-owned YouTube has banned all videos promoting 5G-coronavirus conspiracy theories.

Conspiracy Theories Rampant

One of the bogus theories circulating online ties the origin of the coronavirus in Wuhan to the rollout of 5G technology in the city.

Another claims that Bill Gates invented the false threat of pandemic to cover up the harm caused by 5G.

Five years ago, Gates warned about the danger of a pandemic, and his foundation has been funding research on a coronavirus vaccine.

A number of celebrities have echoed the false claims, including actor Woody Harrelson.

However, countries without 5G wireless, such as India, Iran, and African nations, also have been hit by the pandemic.

In the UK, conspiracy theory believers have threatened telecom engineers and burned cellular phone masts.

The mayor of Liverpool became a threat target after he condemned the 5G-coronavirus conspiracy theory.

UK lawmakers have suggested the rumors might be the work of organized disinformation campaigns.

In the United States, there's speculation that Russia has been pushing the conspiracy theory through influencers.

"We know for a fact that Russian and Chinese agitators have been propagating this myth for some time," said Ray Wang, principal analyst at Constellation Research.

"It's wrong to conflate the push towards 5G with the spread of coronavirus," he told TechNewsWorld. "A real scientific debate and clinical trial should be put in play to prove or disprove this conspiracy theory."

Facebook's Push

The first conspiracy theories about 5G and Wuhan appeared on Facebook in late February. Users were flagging anti-5G groups for spreading misinformation by early March.

Memes making the false claims picked up speed this month when some celebrities latched onto the conspiracy theory, noted Liz Miller, principal analyst at Constellation Research.

"All the while Facebook kept saying that in order to protect free speech, the only thing that could possibly be done was to flag or mark the misinformation," she told TechNewsWorld.

Facebook "could have easily addressed these anti-5G posts in March, let alone when they first started cropping up in 2019," Miller noted, but "chose to side with the misinformation over the truth" to show its adherence to free speech principles.

Facebook has been "playing martyr," she suggested, with "its portrayal of Sisyphus and his never-ending quest to push the rock of ethics and freedom up different hills."

Social media platforms can ban users for espousing different points of view from the mainstream, Wang maintained, because "they are communities, and not considered media. If you want to be a part of the community, you follow their rules -- and that's not freedom of speech."

By the time Facebook took decisive action, the false claim had spread widely, Miller said.

"This isn't just a case of misinformation," she argued. "It's a case study in the industries that profit from that, and then must feign embarrassment and launch heroic policies to combat it."

Facebook took action to limit advertising, Miller said, but "the vast majority of this conspiracy is not passed along by advertising."

YouTube Ramps Up Efforts

YouTube on Monday began reducing how often its algorithm surfaced videos linking coronavirus to 5G technology in user recommendations.

On Tuesday, YouTube banned all such conspiracy theories, following a livestream interview with noted conspiracy theorist David Icke.

YouTube deleted the video's content after the BBC asked why it had not taken action earlier, despite knowing about the livestream. It will allow the interview's host to keep earnings generated through the Super Chats tool but will give its own share of the proceeds to charity.

YouTube will review the channel involved in the controversial livestream.

YouTube has pledged to take the following steps:

  • Quickly remove flagged videos that violate its policies prohibiting the advocacy of medically unsubstantiated methods to prevent coronavirus in place of seeking medical treatment. These include any content that disputes the existence or transmission of COVID-19 as described by the WHO and local health authorities;
  • Reduce recommendations for borderline content that could misinform users in harmful ways;
  • Consider barring users who repeatedly break the rules from using YouTube's Live tool;
  • Consider barring repeat offenders from earning money from their broadcasts; and
  • Terminate offending channels as a last resort.

Assessing the Social Media Clampdown

Facebook "has done a reasonable job," said Constellation's Wang. "They have huge teams responsible for policing and also have teams that prevent political riots off false information."

It is not likely that social media platforms will be able to police everything, though, observed Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research.

"AI is going to help but it's not perfect," he told TechNewsWorld. "There should be a way where -- like on Craigslist -- users can flag objectionable speech and the platforms can then decide whether or not to take it down. At this time, when there's a pandemic, we have to do something."

People can be hurt when bogus health claims go viral online, especially when endorsed by celebrities, Constellation's Wang warned.

Blinded by Lack of Science

"I had the driver of an Uber car I was in tell me he's concerned about millimeter waves," McGregor remarked."These waves can't even penetrate the leaves of a tree, which means you're safe."

The International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection in March released updated guidelines for implementing 5G technology.

There have been longstanding concerns that overexposure to microwave and radio frequency radiation might impact people's health.

However, according to ICNIRP Chair Eric van Rongen, PhD., the organization's guidelines protect against all scientifically substantiated adverse health effects due to electromagnetic field export in the 100 kHz to 300 GHz range.


Richard Adhikari has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2008. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, mobile technologies, CRM, databases, software development, mainframe and mid-range computing, and application development. He has written and edited for numerous publications, including Information Week and Computerworld. He is the author of two books on client/server technology. Email Richard.


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