Newcastle University Business School

News Item

Business School academic part of study on COVID-19 and the 5G conspiracy theory

Since the start of the pandemic, there has been a global wave of news and information across new media platforms, much of it ‘fake news’.

Fake news has the ability to spread rapidly through these technological forms of media and much of the news can physically and mentally harm public health, as Dr Wasim Ahmed from Newcastle University Business School discovered. 

One of the main stories of fake news during the COVID-19 pandemic was that 5G phone masts were helping to spread symptoms of the virus. This theory caused a number of phone masts across the country to be attacked and structurally damaged. 

Dr Wasim Ahmed said: "During the COVID-19 pandemic, social media usage increased and a variety of conspiracy theories were shared. Our study investigated the 5G and COVID-19 conspiracy to identify the drivers of the theory and whether Twitter users really believed it. This was important to understand as a number of 5G phone masts had been vandalised in the U.K and across Europe...”

During this time and despite the lack of evidence that 5G was causing COVID-19, the topic was trending on social media. This is when Dr Wasim Ahmed, a Lecturer in Digital Business, helped undertake the analysis of 6,556 Twitter users whose tweets contained the hashtag “#5GCoronavirus”. The analysis took place over a 7-day period.

The Tweets analysed were those which specifically mentioned the conspiracy theory that new 5G technology is responsible for COVID-19 and helps to spread the virus. 

In order to find out the percentage of Twitter users who did and didn’t believe in this theory, they were put into a number of groups. The largest ones being an isolate group; those who shared their opinions on the theory without any user mentions, and a broadcast group; those who mentioned other users in their Tweet. 

The analysis showed that only 35% of those who simply shared their view actually believed that the 5G COVID-19 conspiracy theory was true, as opposed to 32% who thought it was false information. 33% expressed no view at all. So even though this conspiracy attracted so much attention that it made worldwide news, only a small percentage actually believed the theory. 

 

From digital conspiracy, to vandalism reality 

An important question raised from these findings is how did this news start to spread and what made it travel so fast?  

During the research, it was found that the source of the theory came from a doctor in America in the month of January. In April, over 20 phone masts had been vandalised in the UK. A popular conspiracy theory website had picked up the story, prompting readers to take to social media to voice their opinion. It also got picked up by celebrities, who of which have huge followings, prompting the story to spread even more vastly. 

Even those who took to social media to slam the reports, were inadvertently helping to fuel the spread, using hashtags like #5GCoronavirus. Twitter also admitted to accidentally helping to spread the conspiracy theory by slapping a COVID-19 misinformation label on any tweet which mentioned 5G. Causing to raise the profile of the theories.

 

Nip it in the bud

This investigation provides a great insight into how social media communications translates into real-world attacks on infrastructure. With the case of the 5G mast attacks showing just how serious the misinformation social media narrative can be. More importantly, the findings will be of great use to governments and public health authorities so that they can attempt to counteract the fast spread of dangerous misinformation. 

The devastating reality of fake news has shown that quick interventions to debunk the conspiracies are key to reduce the damage which may be caused. Instead of reacting to the false information, the public should be encouraged to report the content, instead of inadvertently helping to spread it. Dr Wasim Ahmed said:“We noted in our work that social media organisations could act more swiftly in removing misinformation and especially the user-accounts which are spreading it. We also noted and that the general public can also play a role by reporting social media content that may contain misinformation" 

This will be of interest to policymakers, ensuring that those trying to spread the dangerous theories have their inappropriate content taken down or isolated.

 

Sources: 

Ahmed W, Vidal-Alaball J, Downing J, López Seguí F (2020) COVID-19 and the 5G Conspiracy Theory: Social Network Analysis of Twitter Data

Downing, Joseph, Ahmed, Wasim, Vidal-Alaball, Josep and Lopez Seguí, Francesc (2020) Battling fake news and (in)security during COVID-19. E-International Relations.

5G Phone Mast
5G Phone Mast

published on: 6 August 2020