Let's Stop the 5G Hysteria: Understanding Hoaxes and Disinformation Campaigns

Hey, did you hear that Facebook are going to start using your personal photos in whatever way they see fit? For real, it's going to start tomorrow unless you act quickly! All you have to do is copy and paste this message onto your own Facebook page and wammo - they're not allowed to touch them! Ready? Here goes: "With this statement, I give notice to Facebook it is strictly forbidden to disclose, copy, distribute, or take any other action against me based on this profile and/or its contents..."

This sounds ridiculous. It is ridiculous yet somehow, otherwise smart people in my own social networks (and probably yours) lapped it up. Copying and pasting this message achieved absolutely nothing beyond shining a spotlight on those who were prone to falling for hoaxes and disinformation campaigns. I've been following and writing about these for long enough that they're dead obvious to spot these days, for example:

And so it is with posts about the dangers of 5G. I've seen a massive uptick of people sharing information about the emerging cellular standard over the last week or so, enough that it prompted me to ask what's going on via Twitter:

By all means, read through the responses if you want to get a sense of how people responded, but let's avoid the discussion of "does 5G present a danger to our health" and instead talk about how to identify false or misleading information spread by social media. If we spoke about the former, we'd be here all day and others are much more qualified to do it than me. The latter, however, is right up my alley and understanding the hallmarks is valuable well beyond just the current 5G discussion.

So, let's not talk about whether 5G is safe or not, let's instead talk about why opponents of the technology display every single spammy, scammy, hoaxy behaviour imaginable and then you can consider how much you should trust them. I'll break this down into logical headings everyone can easily follow and call out key insights in bold.

It Takes Minutes to Establish (Lack of) Credibility

Let's take a perfect example of disinformation and how easy it is to establish the credibility of what's being shared. I had this pop up a couple of weeks ago:

Sounds ridiculous, but also sounds like the sort of thing non-techie people might fall for. I don't personally know the lady who posted it; she's the mum of a kid in my son's class and AFAIK, not a malware analyst (or anything close) and is unlikely to have an informed opinion on the matter. So let's just Google it:

Well that was easy. I replied to the lady's message with a link to the hoax within about 60 seconds yet still, other parents chimed in and thanked her.

Let's try the same thing with one of the 5G petitions that's been circulating. This one is titled Stop 5G Networks Now! We do not want a weapons system, nor our brains to be fried!:

The first warning sign on this petition is literally the warning at the top of the page:

Change.org has received flags from our users that the statements in this petition may be contested. You should consider researching this issue before signing or sharing.

You'll see the same warning on the Ban the 5g network in Australia petition and the Stop the 5G roll out / Turn off 5G Australia petition. I've seen both these petitions shared in recent days and I'm near certain that none of the people sharing them have "researched this issue before signing or sharing".

Edit: The day after posting this, 2 of the 3 petitions linked to above had been removed by change.org for being "against their community guidelines".

This was started by Jenn Oates so let's dig a little deeper and see what sort of credentials she has given she's talking about the health implications of radio waves. Here's her profile:

That is all. No bio, but there's still useful information here. The profile pic, for one, is easily searched on Google images and returns a constant theme:

Crop circles, eh? We'll just park this as a data point frequently related to conspiracy theories and move on. Let's try a Google search for Jenn Oates Parkerville, WA, Australia. The first result is another Change.org page with a petition update from Jenn. This is the only content of substance on the page:

Whoa - "evil Devil worshipping money counting Judas Satanist". So here's another insight:

Insight 1: You can tell a lot about the credibility of a claim by observing those attracted to it.

While we're on petition updates, have a scroll down the page and the last one at the time of writing embeds a YouTube video titled 5G PROGRAMMED to KILL ALL LIFE which was posted by a user called wil paranormal:

No mention of 5G, but clearly a conspiracy theorist. And again, the insight from above - what does it tell you about a topic when you look at those supporting it?

It took several minutes after looking at Jenn's petition to find the information above and also find a complete lack of information on Jenn herself; no scientific papers, no peer-reviewed content or anything else of any kind you'd expect someone mounting scientific arguments to have produced.

You can play the same easy game with every one of the petitions mentioned above. For example, the "Stop the 5G roll out / Turn off 5G Australia" was started by a "Mumma, Photographer, Glamour/Promotional Model" in Bundaberg, a place better known for making rum than producing scientific research:

The "Ban the 5g network in Australia" petition was started by a vegan Instagram star, so far the only person who actually contributes to the wellness industry but a world away from scientists who study the effects of radio waves on the human body.

All of the people above are, of course, entitled to their own opinions, but the question you need to ask yourself is contained within the next insight:

Insight 2: Understand the difference between people who have formed their own opinion versus those who are qualified enough to influence your opinion.

One last example just to drive the point home:

I enjoyed Zombieland, but not once did I stop and think "here's a guy who looks like he'd know a thing or two about voltage-gated calcium channel activation exacerbating viral replication". Yet here he is, broadcasting it to 2M Instagram followers. Fortunately, he's since deleted the post.

Understand Your Own Susceptibility to Confirmation Bias

Let's start by understanding the term confirmation bias:

Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that confirms or strengthens one's prior personal beliefs or hypotheses. It is a type of cognitive bias. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for desired outcomes, for emotionally charged issues, and for deeply-entrenched beliefs.

As it relates to the 5G topic, what I'm consistently seeing is people who want to believe that governments or big tech are suppressing the little guy and willingly believe that resources confirming this view are trustworthy. The problem with confirmation bias is that if you search hard enough, you'll always find material that supports your point of view.

There's a sensational documentary about flat earthers (ok, sensationally entertaining!) I watched on Netflix recently called Behind the Curve. If you've not seen it already, take a moment to watch the trailer:

Note the quote at about the one-minute mark:

I want to believe "this", this doesn't mesh with reality so don't change my view, change reality!

It's the antithesis to scientific research; instead of setting out to determine the conclusion in an evidence-based fashion, people set out with the conclusion they want to believe already cemented in their minds then find the evidence they need in order to support that conclusion.

Insight 3: Consider whether you believe a claim because the evidence supports it, or simply because you want to believe it.

We are all susceptible to confirmation bias, and that includes me. There are things I dearly want to believe and when I see a headline that supports my bias, I'm naturally inclined to latch onto it. The question for you when reading about a topic such as 5G is whether you want to believe that it's dangerous, or whether you want to research it properly and will be satisfied which whatever conclusion the evidence draws you to. That's the key differentiation, and that's what most people I see sharing the conspiracy theories simply aren't doing.

Occam's Razor (Usually) Provides the Answer

A (non-tech) mate asked me about 5G the other day. He'd read news of it being linked to Coronavirus, a conspiracy theory that has gained a surprising amount of momentum in recent weeks. (Sidenote: Wired has a piece titled How the 5G coronavirus conspiracy theory tore through the internet which explains the origins of this.) It doesn't take much searching to find precisely the sort of correlation conspiracies he's talking about:

So we had a discussion about how correlation does not imply causation and how tweets such as the one above show absolutely zero evidence of a cause and effect relationship between 5G and Coronavirus. If that all sounds a bit wordy for you, the following tweet illustrates it beautifully:

So, what's to be done? do we ban Nicholas Cage movies to prevent drowning? No, because that's a patently ridiculous assertion and we can easily reach that conclusion by applying Occam's Razor:

The simplest solution is most likely the right one.

Applied to 5G and Coronavirus, Occam's Razor would conclude that a densely populated city with 11M people will likely spread a highly contagious virus quite quickly. Also, a large city in China (which is rapidly becoming the tech hub of the world) is likely to be an early adaptor of next gen tech. These are both logical, rational and unrelated conclusions.

Insight 4: When faced with alternative theories, consider which one is the simplest and therefore most likely to be true.

Let's apply Occam's Razor to another accusation being made in the 5G debate space: that big tech is censoring discussion on the topic. My mate brought this up in our discussion: "Google shouldn't be censoring free speech by removing YouTube videos, that should be our right". Alrighty then, let's play that thought out - should Google allow extremist videos that incite violence? No, of course not, because that actually has the potential to cause serious harm. How is that related to 5G hoaxes? Convinced of the role 5G plays in the spread of coronavirus, people are literally destroying 5G towers in the UK:

It's just insane, and it's spurned on by batshit crazy videos like this:

One video, removed by the site after the Guardian flagged it, featured a man claiming to be a former executive at a UK mobile network falsely stating that coronavirus tests were actually used to spread the virus, and that the pandemic was created to hide deaths from the mobile technology.

So, applying Occam's Razor, are videos being removed because big tech is trying to silence "the little guy" blowing the whistle on a corrupt industry that is deliberately spreading a deadly virus to cover up 5G radiation deaths, or are they being removed because they incite dickheads to destroy critical infrastructure? There's only one simple answer...

The "Viral" Nature of Hoaxes is a Warning Sign

Let's go back to the Dance of the Pope hoax for a moment, the one that was circulated by a parent in WhatsApp. Literally whilst writing this blog post yesterday, the following came in via Facebook Messenger from a friend of my parents in a totally different social circle:

The last sentence is the warning sign - "Fwd this msg to as many as you can!" - and you see it over and over again in hoaxes and disinformation campaigns. You'll also see it over and over again as it relates to the 5G debate:

It's very likely Helen doesn't have an informed view on the 5G situation and that it's appealing to her confirmation bias (I'm drawing that conclusion based on her other tweets), yet she's appealing to thousands of follows to reinforce her own view of 5G. When Bal watched the video of a former Vodafone employee drawing links between 5G and coronavirus it "connected a lot of dots" for him (which again, is obviously just appealing to his own confirmation bias), and he encouraged others to watch it and draw the same conclusion. This is the viral nature of social media - one person's enthusiasm or endorsement rapidly spreads to others and it's just so easy to replicate a message without giving any thought to the topic nor the consequences that "going viral" can have.

Going back to the Dance of the Pope, I asked the sender of the hoax what made her believe it was real and now that she knows it's a hoax, how she feels about it:

This sentence nails it, both as it relates to the hoax video and much of the 5G debate that's currently raging:

In my case (& I think with many others), when you know that you lack knowledge & experience in this field, & that you don’t know enough to call it ‘most definitely’ a scam, (& that you feel it’s arrogant to make a choice on other people’s behalf) you err on side of caution & post it on

You know you lack knowledge but you post it on anyway. Now here we are with a dancing pope and 5G spreading coronavirus.

Insight 5: Question why you're being encouraged to influence others and if you're sufficiently informed to do so.

Conclusion

The problem with the 5G situation specifically is that if there are valid concerns to be had, they're buried in there somewhere amongst all the crazy. And let's face it, there's a whole spectrum of legitimacy in this discussion, the challenge is sifting through it, discarding the rubbish and focusing on the good stuff. And that's really the point of this post: being able to identify when information is hyperbolic and likely to be either misleading or outright false versus something we genuinely need to take seriously.

If I was to be concerned about 5G (which I'm not) and I wanted to learn more (which at this stage, I don't), I'd go straight to a technology resource I trusted. Many people pointed me at Wired's coverage in December so if you want to learn more, start there. I'd also defer to the likes of the World Health Organisation:

I wouldn't go to Jenn in Parkerville because without evidence to contrary, I can only assume she has absolutely no idea what she's talking about. I also wouldn't share any information on the topic unless I felt informed enough to influence others. I do feel informed enough to share an opinion on hoaxes and disinformation campaigns, so here we all are.

If I've appealed to your own confirmation bias by highlighting nut jobs talking about 5G conspiracy theories, please share this post with your entire social network ?

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Hi, I'm Troy Hunt, I write this blog, create courses for Pluralsight and am a Microsoft Regional Director and MVP who travels the world speaking at events and training technology professionals