In September, a small town outside of Silicon Valley, Mill Valley, banned 5G over health concerns. They joined several other Marin County municipalities in blocking 5G deployment. On any given Facebook post about the new technology, you’ll find at least one or two commenters insisting that 5G is a death sentence. There are flyers at bus-stops claiming the cell phone tech is a CIA plot. There’s even a petition on MoveOn.org urging President Donald Trump to ban 5G altogether.
According to a new report in the New York Times, these fears are not only unsubstantiated — Russia may be playing a role in proliferating them.
The Times reports that RT America — formerly known as Russia Today — the Russian government-funded news-cum-propaganda organization that is considered to be one of the main agitators behind Russian meddling in the 2016 election, recently aired a segment “linking 5G signals to brain cancer, infertility, autism, heart tumors, and Alzheimer’s disease.”
This is part of a growing trend from RT: they ran only one anti-5G segment in 2018, so far this year they’ve run seven. Meanwhile, in Russia, President Vladimir Putin is publicly praising the Russian roll-out of 5G, according to the Times. So is RT warning Americans about an insidious new technology or is there something more sinister going on?
Part 1: What is 5G?
We wrote about what 5G is previously — when carriers first announced their 2019-2020 rollouts — but here’s a brief refresher.
As more and more items in our daily lives become connected to the internet thanks to the Internet of Things — think connectivity for physical products, like smart fridges and smart speakers — our current network is starting to become overloaded, so there’s a need for new technology that will support all the cell phones and IoT items in the world.
5G is the blanket term for the latest generation of mobile network technology. The core difference between 5G and 4G is speed: 5G is going to be much faster than our current phones, as much as 600 times faster, in fact. (That is, when the infrastructure is done being built. In the meantime, expect speeds 5-10 times faster than current 4G speeds.) Additionally, 5G technologies use a higher-frequency band than 4G, which means that 5G will work in high-activity areas.
That said, the technology is not without its problems: there’s a lack of security on the high-frequency technology. Additionally, as it operates at a higher frequency, its range is more limited than 4G — thus requiring more cell site equipment in order for it to work properly — and the Federal Communications Commission has restricted cities’ ability to regulate the 5G infrastructure roll-out.
Part 2: What are detractors saying about the technology? Are their concerns founded?
Well, the security of the network is definitely questionable, and that’s partially why Chinese telecomm giant Huawei has been banned from working on 5G infrastructure in several countries, including the U.S., citing concerns about hacking. But as for all the other stuff —cancer, mind-control, that sort of thing — no.
Let’s focus on the really big stuff: health concerns.
CLAIM: 5G technology will expose humans to dangerous levels of radiofrequency radiation.
First things first: the small cells upon which 5G relies actually release less radiation than current antennas in use. Second of all, radiofrequency radiation (RFR) is non-ionizing. Ionizing radiation, on the other hand, is the high-energy kind that is used in X-rays and nuclear technology. The latter type can alter molecules, break chemical bonds, and damage DNA, which could lead to cancer and other health issues. RFR radiation, on the other hand, is low-energy — even lower energy than other non-ionizing radiation like, uh, visible light.
Further, radiation exposure is not an inherently bad thing, even ionizing radiation. Bananas are technically radioactive. Smoke detectors and granite countertops are, too. Air travel is slightly radioactive. Exposure to small amounts of both ionizing and non-ionizing radiation is a part of life.
CLAIM: Radiation exposure from 5G cell sites will cause cancer.
Very high levels of exposure of RFR can cause tissue damage due to the heating abilities of the radiation (it’s the same kind of radiation that makes microwaves work), and in 2011, the World Health Organization classified RFR as a possible carcinogen. Still, that warning also cautioned that evidence was inconsistent at best.
A 2016 study found a link between high-dose RFR exposure and tumor growth in lab rats, raising new concerns about cancer and cell phones. But the evidence was not causal: “[T]here was no clear increased risk among female rats or among male or female mice in the study. The male rats also lived longer than rats who were not exposed to RF radiation, for unclear reasons.” And overall, the meta-evidence of RFR-linked cancer is inconclusive at best.
CLAIM: Exposure to 5G’s RFR will change brain development.
There’s no science behind this claim. It’s not like how prolonged lead exposure can stymy intellectual development in children — which has been thoroughly studied and proven. At best (worst) the end of any claim about 5G is “not enough data available.”
According to long-time consumer tech reporter Simon Rockman, “People are more likely to own a mobile phone than own a toothbrush. We’ve had the ‘current wireless exposure’ in the mass market at 900 MHz since 1985 and at 1800 MHz since 1994. Despite all these billions of people and decades of use there is no evidence of ill-effect.”
CLAIM: 5G exposure will cause Alzheimer’s.
The root cause of Alzheimer’s isn’t yet known. According to both the National Institute on Aging and the Mayo Clinic, Alzheimer’s is caused by a “combination of genetic, lifestyle, and environmental factors” which likely differs from person to person. There’s a relatively strong link between heart disease, stroke, and diabetes and risk for Alzheimer’s. Neither body mentions radiation as a possible cause.
While concerns have been raised about possible links between Alzheimer’s and radiation exposure over the years, there is little evidence to connect the two, especially in normative exposure doses. In fact, several promising studies have shown the potential positive effects of low-doses ionizing radiation therapy on those suffering from Alzheimer’s, and there’s even an upcoming pilot study on whether or not radiotherapy might offer the same benefits.
CLAIM: Living near cell towers causes headaches, dizziness, diarrhea, and more.
This belief is likely related to the conflation of non-ionizing and ionizing radiation. The latter — the same kind that can damage DNA — can cause those problems in people who are exposed to high doses. This is also known as radiation sickness and is part of the reason why cancer patients who go through radiation therapy experience these symptoms.
In regards to RFR, however, there is no evidence to suggest that exposure causes these problems; acute exposure can cause thermal damage (burns), but regular RFR exposure causes no such symptoms.
Part 3: Why is Russia stoking 5G fears?
There are two major answers to this.
1) Tamping down 5G development in the U.S. will help Russia. The more complex answer: Per the Times, “Moscow’s goal, experts say, is to destabilize the West by undermining trust in democratic leaders, institutions and political life.”
Causing tensions between U.S. citizens and their government over the 5G roll-out will not only potentially slow the ability to build a sound infrastructure, but it will also continue the Russian government’s propaganda-troll operations, which intentionally attempt to sow chaos and distrust among U.S. citizens.
2) Per the Times, Russia’s roll-out isn’t going as smoothly as the U.S.’s is at the moment. We can look to a speech Putin gave a few years ago to see why that matters. In 2017, Putin told a group of students, “Artificial intelligence is the future, not only for Russia, but for all humankind. It comes with colossal opportunities, but also threats that are difficult to predict. Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.”
Russia’s interest in AI and 5G infrastructure dovetail: they’re both key technological quadrants which will play major roles in national security and cyber warfare in the coming years.
PART 4: But why is anyone buying it?
As for why people are picking up what Russia is putting down, that’s a tale as old as humanity itself: it’s the same reason people doubt that the moon landing happened and believe that the Earth is flat. It’s the same reason that Americans fear technology more than death. It’s a fear of the unknown — and too much fear “can be very detrimental” to the human mind. It’s obviously exacerbated by foreign entities trying to tamper with our nation.
If you look at a meta-analysis of the psychology of conspiracy theories, some of the driving forces behind a belief in conspiracy theories are: “[satisfying] curiosity when information is unavailable, reducing uncertainty and bewilderment when available information is conflicting, finding meaning when events seem random, and defending beliefs from disconfirmation.” Conspiracy theories seem to provide “internally consistent explanations that allow people to preserve beliefs in the face of uncertainty and contradiction.”
When applied to new technology, the existence of conspiracy theories makes sense. 5G is an unknown. Part and parcel of human nature is fear of the unknown, and conspiracy theories seek to find a recognizable pattern which our brains can understand. That lack of certainty is being amped up with Russian money. There’s a protective aspect to it – an attempt to guard oneself from potentially malevolent actors.
But at the end of the day, it’s important to note that the data don’t currently support the notion that 5G is in any way dangerous.