In the spring of 2020, while the world stayed indoors to suppress Covid-19, arsonists attacked mobile phone towers in Britain, Ireland, the Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand. They set fire to nearly a hundred towers in the UK, or tried to; there were twenty attacks over the Easter weekend alone, including one on a tower serving a Birmingham hospital. The arsonists believed that the latest mobile phone technology, 5G, was the real cause of the pandemic. They imagined a worldwide conspiracy: either the unexpectedly genocidal effects of the 5G rollout were being covered up by faking a pandemic, or 5G was being used deliberately to kill huge numbers of people and help enslave whoever was left. In the actual world, 5G’s feeble radio waves aren’t capable of any of this – you’d get more radiation standing near a baby monitor – but the fire-setters are unheedful of that world.
As well as the anti-5G insurgency, the conspiracist assault on the mainstream approach to coronavirus takes the form of a suspicion of vaccination, an older concern than 5G-phobia and more of an obstacle to governments’ plans to contain the virus. But the encounter between conspiracy theory and Covid-19 isn’t as clear-cut as that. When the pandemic hit, social media, hyper-partisan broadcasters, Trump-era populism and conspiracy theory were already creating a self-contained alternative political thought space conducive to the cross-fertilization of conspiracist ideas. Covid-19 and government efforts to control it – an extreme event, accompanied by what can seem baffling and intrusive restrictions – appear, in the conspiracist mind, as the most open moves yet by a secret group of sadistic tyrants who want to reduce the human population and enslave those who remain. The pandemic and official countermeasures are interpreted as proof, and Covid becomes the string on which any and all conspiracy theories may be threaded.
Seen through the conspiracist filter, by forcing us to wear masks, by closing bars and isolating the frail elderly, by trying to terrify us over, as they see it, a dose of flu, or by microwaving us with 5G, the secret elite has shown its hand.
Now that its existence, nature and power have been proved to us, why shouldn’t we believe that the members of this group arranged 9/11? Or that Bill Gates is planning to kill us with vaccines, or inject us with nanochips hidden in vaccines, or both? Why shouldn’t the entire course of world events have been planned by a group of elite families hundreds, even thousands, of years ago? Why shouldn’t there be a link between the bounds to individual freedoms that governments have drawn up to slow climate change and the restrictions they’re carrying out in the name of beating Covid? Surely these two hoaxes are cooked up by the same firm, with the same agenda? Why, as followers of the American conspiracy theory known as QAnon insist, shouldn’t a group of politicians, tycoons and celebrities be kidnapping and torturing children on a massive scale?
A large survey in May conducted by researchers in Oxford found that only about half of English adults were free of what they termed “conspiracy thinking.” Three-quarters of the population have doubts about the official explanations of the cause of the pandemic; most people think there’s at least a chance it was man-made. Almost half think it may have been deliberately engineered by China against “the West.” Between a fifth and a quarter are ready to blame Jews, Muslims or Bill Gates, or to give credence to the idea that “the elite have created the virus in order to establish a one-world government”; 21% believe – a little, moderately, a lot or definitely – that 5G is to blame, about the same number who think it is “an alien weapon to destroy humanity.”
Conspiracy beliefs, the researchers concluded, were “likely to be both indexes and drivers of societal corrosion ... Fringe beliefs may now be mainstream. A previously defining element that the beliefs are typically only held by a minority may require revision… Healthy skepticism may have tipped over into a breakdown of trust.”
A friend, a BBC journalist, told me about a conversation he’d had with an acquaintance who began talking about the dangers of 5G and claimed that “every time a new kind of electromagnetic energy is invented, it causes a new kind of disease, like the invention of radar caused Spanish flu.”
“But Spanish flu happened in 1918, and radar wasn’t invented till the 1930s,” my friend said.
“You would say that, wouldn’t you?” This was uttered without a trace of a smile.