Home Consequences The consequences of COVID-19 conspiracy theories

The consequences of COVID-19 conspiracy theories

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Photograph of 5G cell phone tower in blue sky (Getty Images/The Tribune).

Editor’s Note: This article is a part of a series of stories with the theme “consequences.” It was originally intended to be published in a print edition of The Collegiate. However, because of COVID-19 we were unable to make a hard-copy magazine. 

By Allie Ouendag

Currently the United States, along with the rest of the world, is facing a crisis like no other. Fear of the virus, financial ruin, and even isolation run rampant through all communities reaching every demographic, location, and financial class. As we are held up in our homes waiting for some sign of safety and an eventual return to normalcy, we are forced to place our trust in the experts in the medical and scientific communities as well as our current administration to drive us out of a seemingly endless quarantine. But when these trusts are failed, where do we turn? 

It is evident across social media platforms from Facebook to Instagram that there is a growing sense of distrust in almost everything – including mainstream media. Conspiracy theories blame 5G towers for spreading a man made COVID-19, others speculate the Chinese government had some motivation to purposely release the virus from a scientific research lab in Wuhan, and some would even go so far as to suggest the entire pandemic is a scam. These theories are easy to dismiss as erratic or extreme thought coming from a select few.  The danger is however when these theories held by the minority of the population are taken as literal fact and as a result endanger the rest of society. 

Researchers from the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection published a study this March that concluded that 5G towers overall have no negative effect on human health. Dr. Johnathan Semet seconds this thought as Dean of Colorado School of Public Health and an experienced researcher in cell phone radiation and cancer. “To be concerned that 5G is somehow driving the COVID-19 epidemic is just wrong. I just don’t find any plausible way to link them,” Semet said.

Despite this evidence, this week 5G towers in the United Kingdom were burned by a man who believed they were linked to the virus. An estimated 50 fires have been started at other cell towers in the area this month as well as 80 reported instances of abuse against telecom engineers in Birmingham. The use of 5G towers is critical during a crisis as their main function is to carry mobile telecom signals between devices.

These responses from credible sources were not enough to shift individuals’ perception and blog posts continue to entertain and promote the false idea that 5G towers spread COVID-19. 

Distrust of institutions is not an uncommon precedent in American history especially in times of crisis. In 2007 a public opinion poll conducted jointly by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University found that 32% of Americans believed that the United States government was involved in some conspiracy of 9/11. Not only do these claims rely on less than credible sources they also unfairly dismiss the thousands of deaths of American citizens and first responders as part of some outrageous hoax. 

A healthy distrust in the government can sometimes benefit the public as institutions can be held accountable to the people in which it serves. There is however a very distinct difference between a healthy distrust and uncredible speculation. For example the Watergate investigation in 1972 was able to unearth transgressions by the Nixon administration to cover up connections between the White House and the break-in at the Watergate Hotel. This scandal was grounded in a mountain of evidence uncovered by journalist Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who besides being personal heroes to almost every political journalist at some point in time, were able to find the light of truth in a very dark place. 

Online conspiracy theorists and bloggers, despite what they may believe, are not Woodwards and Bernsteins, so we should stop taking their word as if it was. It is sometimes difficult to look past the titillating headlines that promise a juicy government coverup, but there is a danger in disregarding expert opinion and advice and instead letting online sleuths offer up their take and research on topics. The consequences of feeding into such falsehoods breeds a society that is ignorant to truth to the extent that it will dismiss it all together.