Covid conspiracy theories – what’s a journalist to do?

Reporters have generally been careful to stress that there’s no scientific basis for people’s worst fears – but that hasn’t stopped some angry abuse for the journalists

By Paul Breeden, chair, Bristol NUJ

HOW should journalists cover conspiracy theories? That’s never been so much of a  burning question as it is now. The Covid-19 crisis has brought not just the usual suspects out of the woodwork – the 9/11 deniers, the world government theorists and the lizard-ruler fantasists – but those who are genuinely worried that the new virus is something other than a natural event.

5G: Real, but probably misguided, health fears have become conflated with scientific nonsense linking the technology with the Covid pandemic Image: Ria Sopala from Pixabay

It’s not surprising when something as devastating as the coronavirus occurs, causing death and economic meltdown the world over, that some people don’t accept at face value the explanations they’re being given. The truth is often nuanced, and conspiracy theories give a simple answer.

What’s a journalist to do? My abiding belief has been that it’s our job to explain all the arguments to people so that they can make up their own minds. What, though, when the evidence is overwhelmingly on one side – as with climate change? It seems wrong to present a ‘balanced’ debate for and against human-induced global warming when 97% of the best qualified experts assert that, yup, it’s happening, and we’re to blame.(1) 

The same would seem to apply to the current crop of campaigners who assert that  Covid 19 is somehow connected the rollout of 5G telecoms networks.

The difficulty for journalists is that when we attempt to deal responsibly with conspiracy theories – those for which, when we examine the facts, we find no evidence – we can be accused of “covering up” by not delving into every nook and cranny of the arguments. Often people will dismiss the barmier theories, but continue to think ‘there’s no smoke without fire’ or ‘there might be something in it, and the full facts are being hidden from us’.

The Covid conspiracy theories vary. Some state that 5G transmissions magnify the effects of the virus (untrue, say all qualified scientists – there is some limited and irrelevant electro-magnetic activity related to bacteria, but not viruses). Others claim that the 5G transmissions actually cause the infection (which is just bunkum – there is no plausible mechanism by which this could happen, and if it did, Covid infections would cluster around 5G installations; yet Iran, where there is no 5G, has an awful lot of Covid deaths).(2)

There is a more understandable worry about possible health risks from 5G. Some people who are genuinely fearful about 5G assume there might just be something in the Covid claims too, and so the two groups of 5G opponents overlap.

That’s when I think we should talk a step back and look at what the majority of the best-informed and broadest-based scientific groups with the relevant expertise are saying. You have to weigh the relative opinions of, say an “activist and philosophy lecturer at the Isle of Wight College”, quoted by the Daily Star as a reputable source on Covid, and, say, the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection, Ofcom, the WHO and Public Health England, all of which were used to  inform a comprehensive rebuttal of the Star article by Full Fact.(3)

I remember a similar and equally passionate campaign against Tetra, the low-frequency comms system developed for the police and emergency services in the early 2000s.

Some of the opponents were clearly one fruit loop short of a breakfast; others well-intentioned; some wore tinfoil hats to protests. But never mind them, read these comments from a Guardian article in 2001:(4)

‘Roger Coghill, an independent research scientist and a member of the Department of Health’s UK mobile telecommunications health research programme, said: “A criminal could not have come up with a better system. They couldn’t have chosen a better frequency with which to disarm and debilitate the very forces that are trying to secure their arrest.’

‘Alasdair Philips, an expert on the biological effects of electromagnetic radiation and director of the campaign group Powerwatch, said Tetra had the potential to become the “next asbestos”.’

These claims were listened to. Police officers who were diagnosed with cancer after using Tetra feared the radios might be the cause. Communities campaigned against the technology, and several succeeded in having Tetra masts cancelled or removed. (5)

So what has happened with Tetra since 2001? It’s been in use by all UK blue-light services since 2004 or so. To answer the legitimate health fears, the Government authorised the Airwave Health Monitoring Study, the largest study of its type in the world. It’s still going, assessing the overall health (not just radio magnetic effects) of more than 45,000 UK police officers – an enormous sample for a scientific study.

The conclusion: there is no evidence of Tetra radio use being associated with cancer risk or other ill-health (though the follow-up continues).(6) Sometimes people get cancer; it may coincide with a change in their life, such as using a new kind of radio. But proving that one caused the other takes a controlled, scientific study, and there are fewer bigger or more comprehensive than the Airwave Health Monitoring Study.

Why am I banging on about this? Because it’s easy as journalists to feel a responsibility to people who are genuinely concerned, and seem to have found some “worrying evidence” that they want explored. The problem is that if you enter a discussion with a conviction that there is a smoking gun to be found, then you will find it. It’s called cherry-picking the evidence: you only look for what you want to find and, consciously or unconsciously, you ignore everything else.

You may even find apparently well-qualified, relevant experts like the ones the Guardian quoted in 2001. The Guardian was right to report them then; but despite their colourful claims, they have turned out to be wrong.

There is still controversy about mobile phone use and cancer risk, it is true; but most of the relevant experts do not think there is a real danger.(7)(10)

I’ve been interested to read various articles, in regional and national press, about the supposed link between Covid and 5G. Most, apart from the Daily Star piece, have given the scientifically illiterate theories short shift – see for example, ‘The contagion of misinformation and a Bristol Facebook page linking 5G and coronavirus’ by Alon Aviram in the Bristol Cable on April 6, 2020(8). 

Or ‘The Bristol man who calls 5G mast vandals “heroes” and peddles dangerous fake news from city parks,’ by Conor Gogarty on Bristol Live, April 15, 2020(9).

Both articles firmly take the view that there’s no basis to any links between 5G and Covid 19. But there’s a marked difference when you look at the comments made by readers online.

The BristolLive readers are mainly critical of the 5G conspiracy theorist Robin Campbell featured in the story, who appears to advocate people damaging telecoms masts, and claims the Covid-19 pandemic is “all hype”. One reader calls Campbell a ‘terrorist’ and others criticise BristolLive for giving him a platform.

At the Bristol Cable, though, author and Cable co-founder Alon Aviram received a torrent of abuse for his refusal to give credence to the 5G claims. He told Bristol NUJ: “I had had legal threats [about stories in the Cable] over the years but I’ve never had to deal with personal attacks and threats – people wishing all sorts of things on me and my colleagues.” 

He faced accusations that he was in the pay of the telecoms industry and veiled threats to him and his family. “It does shake you up, it’s not nice,” he said. There are 27 comments online to the Cable story – most of them negative.

Perhaps the difference between the reactions of the two sets of readers is because BristolLive is a traditional, ‘mainstream’ local news outlet, while Cable readers are more likely to be activists, younger, and less trustful of authority.

Alon draws a different conclusion, though, pointing out that the loud voices of the online protesters do not represent the majority of Cable readers.

‘Although there were was a very vocal community of people lambasting us for our coverage, our loyal readers and members supported the coverage and we experienced no cancellations as a result,’ Alon said.

Tellingly, many Cable readers seemed not to believe there was any real link between 5G and Covid. Instead, they were offended that the Cable had ignored what they thought were real worries about other health risks from 5G transmissions. They accused the Cable of a lack of independence and ‘ignorance’ of the many health concerns which have been raised about the technology.

In fact, there have previously been several articles in the Bristol media airing worries over the 5G rollout – in BristolLive, Bristol 247, and, indeed, in the Bristol Cable. It can be hard for journalists to ignore a well-established campaign which can quote many eminent and apparently expert commentators on a new health risk.

But what’s the right thing for a journalist to do? I think it’s to look for the best evidence from the most qualified sources. Question even that, for sure, if there is good reason to do so. But when an enormous scientific study is set up to investigate these worries, as happened in the case of Tetra, we have to pay serious attention to the outcome.

We have a responsibility here – especially at times of global crisis. We have to call the facts as we see them – airing arguments, yes, but refusing to be dragged into scientific illiteracy or giving unquestioned support to well-intentioned but probably baseless theories. The consequences could be serious – in this case there has already been serious damage to telecoms masts, imperilling people who might need to use their mobile phone. Perhaps worse, sowing doubt unnecessarily could lead to a lack of trust in the things most likely to rescue us from the pandemic – civil order and a hi-tech pharmaceutical industry.

I haven’t mentioned the V-word – vaccines. It’s interesting that throughout the Covid crisis the fringe of the alternative health movement, which holds that pharmaceuticals are harmful and vaccination positively dangerous, has had very little traction. Almost the whole world is waiting in high anxiety for Big Pharma to come up with a vaccine for Covid 19. Which would you trust – a shot in the arm from Glaxo Wellcome, or a homeopathic pill from your friendly community naturopath? When push comes to shove, we know which answer most people will give.

Journalism is about making judgements. We’re not writing for ourselves, or our friends, or the most vocal interest groups among our readers. We need to air all the arguments, but if some of them seem to us to be seriously ill-founded, perhaps dangerous, we should say so. Sometimes behaving responsibly can turn a small portion of our readers against us, as the Cable has found. So be it.          

(1) Various studies have found between 80% and 100% of climate scientists accepting that climate change is real and caused by human activity. Most veer above the 97% mark; those scientists with the highest expertise in climate science are the most convinced of the human explanation.  

(2) The notion that 5G transmissions propagate or worsen coronavirus infections is scientifically illiterate – as wrong as you can be. “Viruses and electromagnetic waves that make mobile phones and internet connections work are different things. As different as chalk and cheese,” says Prof Adam Finn, Professor of Paediatrics, University of Bristol (more expert quotes below). 

Some have claimed that Iran does in fact have a 5G network. It doesn’t: it hopes to roll one out next year:

https://www.msn.com/en-xl/middleeast/top-stories/iran-finishes-preparations-to-launch-5g-internet-minister/ar-BBZYXjB

https://www.speedtest.net/ookla-5g-map

(3) https://fullfact.org/health/5G-not-accelerating-coronavirus/ The Star has now rowed back on some of its claims and changed its headline to ‘Coronavirus: Activists in bizarre claim 5G could be acting as ‘accelerator’ for disease’ – which sounds like having its cake and eating it. It also includes an innocent-sounding reference to the ‘precautionary principle’ that ‘that governments and societies should react with caution to anything with the potential to cause catastrophic damage which is not yet well-understood by science’ – making it sound as if we know little about electro magnetic radiation, and it’s a lurking killer. Er, don’t we need evidence from someone better qualified than a philosophy lecturer for that?

(4) https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2001/may/08/stuartmillar

(5) Quoted experts claimed that Tetra could lead to ‘more civilian deaths in peacetime than all the terrorist organisations put together’, and ‘We could be seeing a pandemic of brain tumours in 10 years’. Sixteen years later, those experts have been proved wrong.

https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/the-mast-crusaders-534215.html

(6) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30585256

(7) Only ionising radiation (at the upper end of the electromagnetic spectrum) can penetrate human cells and cause damage – an example of ionising radiation is X-rays. All mobile phone transmissions are at much lower frequencies and cannot break chemical bonds in cells or remove electrons. People also worry that mobile phones will ‘cook’ their brain, but there are strict limits on device heating. Ofcom has done tests on 5G base stations and found that they operate at a tiny fraction of the safe level set by the International Commission on Non‐Ionizing Radiation Protection.

https://inews.co.uk/news/5g-coronavirus-conspiracy-theories-panic-online-false-agendas-2535254

(8) https://thebristolcable.org/2020/04/coronavirus-bristol-5g-the-contagion-of-misinformation-facebook-page/ 

Sample comments under the Cable story include: ‘A friend just sent this to me. It’s really spiteful. I don’t understand why you would turn on a community group like that. Unless you were compromised in some way.’

‘The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything – Albert Einstein. … and by those ‘independent journalists’ (the unbearable irony!) who betray the common people as they eagerly bend over to assist the establishment fulfil their pre-ordained agenda.’

‘The revenue gained by the government for 5G licenses are eye watering, for this reason alone there is no appetite for any research into the effects on humans.’

Some comments are written in capitals, others make untested statements such as ‘Birds, bats and bees are falling dead all across the world especially in the cities that have a lot of this new technology.’

None of the opponents of 5G cite any studies that might prove their point, except for a 1998 BBC article quoting Roger Coghill –– the biologist later quoted by the Guardian about the supposed threat of Tetra, as referenced above.

(9) https://www.bristolpost.co.uk/news/bristol-news/5g-coronavirus-youtube-conspiracy-theory-4045053

Sample comments about the 5G conspiracy theorist include: ‘How long are you going to leave this idiot on the website?’

‘This guy us an absolute suitcase and deserves to be locked up.’

‘Arrest this idiot for the Terrorist he is!’

(10) Perhaps the last word (for now, anyway) on health risks from mobile phones. This New York Times article traces how a single graph – drawn by a physicist with little biomedical training for a county school board in Florida – ignited a huge protest movement fearful that mobiles could cause cancer. The graph contained an elemental error which made it invalid – but it’s still being cited by protesters.

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