OPINION | The 5G effect and Covid conspiracies: Why these notions must be dispelled

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Conspiracy theories blaming 5G for the coronavirus have exploded online.
Conspiracy theories blaming 5G for the coronavirus have exploded online.
Cindy Ord/Getty Images

There are several reasons why conspiracies surrounding Covid-19 and 5G technology have come to the fore. Fazlin Fransman examines what has led to techno-sceptics' views entering the mainstream.

"Fake news" is not just a problem of misleading or false claims on fringe websites; it is increasingly filtering into the mainstream and has the potential to be deeply destructive.

This was elucidated earlier this year when Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams issued a media statement condemning the ongoing destruction of cellphone towers in South Africa.

As has been the case in other parts of the world, some South Africans burnt cellphone towers (including non-5G towers), based on the incorrect conspiracy theories linking 5G towers to the spread of Covid-19.

While these techno-sceptics have continuously operated on the socio-political spectrum fringes, several circumstances specific to Covid-19 and 5G technology have amplified their voices and brought a geostrategic element to their campaigning.

These include three primary premises:

Attack on Huawei

Firstly, the United States' continued onslaught on Huawei, the leader in 5G technology.

This onslaught sought to delegitimise Huawei as a significant player within the tech space. This was done by emphasising that Huawei was an arm of the Chinese Communist Party, and therefore its agenda is nefarious.

The second premise that feeds the techno-sceptics is that Covid-19 originated in China, permitting the creation of a narrative that China unleashed the virus upon the rest of the world as a conscious act.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the coincidental emergence of 5G and Covid-19, at a time when there was an active campaign specifically against 5G technology developed by Huawei.

These three premises form the backbone of the disinformation campaign and is continuously perpetuated on social media with statements that allege the South African government is complicit in the spread of Covid-19.

One such view believes government aircraft are dropping "the virus" on people at night. Viral videos with "personal testimony" are currently making the rounds on platforms like TikTok.

READ | Rumours about 5G causing Covid-19 spreading faster than the virus itself

Furthermore, even though Covid-19 is spreading in countries where no 5G telecommunications infrastructure exists, these techno-sceptics continue to make the false claim that telecommunications technology is linked to the ongoing global pandemic.

Given the centrality of information technology and the fourth industrial revolution in South Africa's development trajectory, the combined techno-scepticism and geopolitical effort to prevent the rollout of 5G as critical infrastructure represents a threat to the South African development path.

This was further highlighted when President Cyril Ramaphosa, in his two most recent State of the Nation Addresses, emphasised the centrality of technology in the plan to roll out a massive infrastructure-centric job creation and development programme.

The construction of smart cities, such as the Lanseria Smart City, is now a reality in the making. The draft master plan for this smart city – which will become home to between 350 000 to 500 000 people within the next decade – was completed in November 2020 and is now out for public comment. Hence, the need for 5G technology becomes a critical imperative.

The Centre for Analytic and Behavioural Change at the University of Cape Town is of the view that disinformation poses a serious threat to the health of the South African people and our democracy as a whole. The result of this being the "anti-mask" campaign, among others.

Origin must be questioned

As an active citizenry, we must question the origin of this disinformation campaign and ask why it is similar to the disinformation perpetuated by the right-wing elite in the US.

The fact that this narrative mimics US right-wing positions amplifies its voice, perceived legitimacy and effect.

Experts have noted that this is a deliberate strategic effort.

The immediate imperative is to respond to the techno-scepticism and the broader geopolitical assault in respect of 5G and China's role in developing and making this technology available.

Furthermore, it is important to not conflate "the race for dominance" in the ICT sector, specifically between the USA and China, and the actual viability of this technology, and its relevance in helping South Africa tackle the triple challenge of poverty, inequality and unemployment.

This conflation has resulted in the techno-sceptics, who previously operated on the fringes of mainstream discourse, now having their voices amplified and aligned with the geopolitical agenda of pushing an anti-China and, by implication, an anti-Huawei agenda.  

In our estimation, these voices will become more intense over the next few months as the Chinese Communist Party celebrates its 100th anniversary and implication for its success in lifting people out of extreme poverty.

The centrality of information technology and the fourth industrial revolution in South Africa's development trajectory is so important that it is critical to dispel these notions and engage in an active knowledge-sharing campaign to counter the disinformation. 

- Fazlin Fransman is a senior researcher at the Moja Research Institute.

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