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Understanding 5G Concerns – Expert Q&A

Recent attacks on cell phone towers have brought concerns over the rollout of 5G technology into sharp relief.

While scientific research has consistently shown that the technology does not adversely affect human health, public concerns about its impact have spread around the world, fueled in part by growing misinformation online.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the following:

  1. 5G engineering in New Zealand
  2. Māori perpectives on 5G technology
  3. The psychology of conspiratorial thinking
  4. The influence of social media

Professor Peter Chong, Associate Head of School (Research) and Head of Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, Auckland University of Technology, comments:

“Three NZ mobile operators, Vodafone, Spark and 2degrees, have deployed 4G networks to cover over 96% of population. Up to now, Vodafone and Spark have deployed 5G networks to provide data speeds of 10 times faster than current 4G networks. Other 5G benefits include much higher capacity and lower latency.

“In September 2019, Spark rolled out 5G high-speed wireless broadband in Alexandra, Central Otago. It was the first 5G commercial service running in NZ. Since December 2019, Spark has deployed 5G networks in other South Island locations including Westport, Twizel, Tekapo, Hokitika and Clyde. Spark was supposed to rollout 5G networks in more locations from March 2020.

“Since December 2019, Vodafone has launched 5G networks by upgrading nearly 100 cell sites in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Queenstown to cover around 5% of population. Over the next two to three years, Vodafone plans to launch 1400 more 5G cell sites which can almost cover over 90% of population.

“It is expected that NZ mobile operators already have plans to rollout more 5G cell sites to provide nationwide coverage in near future.”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Syed Faraz Hasan, Senior Lecturer (Communication Engineering and Networks), Massey University, comments:

“Cell towers are strategically located across an area of interest in order to provide seamless mobile phone connectivity to the end users. Some areas are served by multiple cell towers of the same operator to avoid single point of failure situations, and also to provide increased capacity at places where user density is high. In general, loss of a cell tower can potentially suspend mobile phone coverage over several kilometers.

“Radio Spectrum Management (RSM) maintains a record of the licenses issued to operate cell towers in different regions of New Zealand. This information is publicly available in the Register of Radio Frequencies of the RSM. There may be 200, 1000, 2000, or even more cell towers in a region, depending on where you are. Not all of them will be using 5G because its nation-wide deployment has only recently started.

“One of the concerns associated with 5G signals is that they have never been tested before. While 5G mm-waves have never been used for large scale mobile telephony before, their effects have been examined by researchers in the past.”

No conflict of interest.

Karaitiana Taiuru (Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Rārua), STEAM Māori Cultural Advisor at Taiuru & Associates Ltd, final year Doctoral Student at Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi, comments:

“Historically there has been widespread intergenerational mistrust by Māori with the New Zealand government dating back to early settlers with broken contracts, theft and various other crimes against Māori. Then government interventions to assist Māori such as The Declaration of the Independence of New Zealand (Māori: He Wakaputanga o te Rangatiratanga o Nu Tireni) and The Treaty of Waitangi/Te Tiriti were not honoured and ignored for many decades.

“More recently, New Zealand initiated and promoted cultural assimilation initiatives such as the Native Schools Act 1867, Tohunga Suppression Act 1908, which was repealed by the Māori Welfare Act 1962, and Hunn Report 1961, all of which created intergenerational consequences, trauma and mistrust. While these topics may not be taught at schools and be common knowledge, Māori is an oral story-telling culture. These stories and their direct impacts on family members and local communities are shared intergenerationally, reinforcing (for some) mistrust of government, authorities, and mainstream media.

“Based on recent research and Waitangi Tribunal applications and hearings, government departments and entities, such as Courts, Social Services, Police and the education system, have proven to still have inherited biases and stereotypes against Māori. One impact of these biases in the education system is that Māori are underrepresented in sciences, engineering and other technologies, creating a wide knowledge gap on topics such as 5G. The biases in justice systems could create fears of mass surveillance and issues that were seen in the 2007 police raids.

“Māori society is very hierarchical, and community based. There are some groups with a number of social media followers promoting 5G conspiracies. But we also do not have Iwi leaders speaking out in favour of or promoting 5G technologies and the myriad of economic and social opportunities for Māori.

“For over two decades we continue to see a small group of Māori individuals negotiate spectrum rights with Government and commercial agreements with industry, but this is done in private. This could be interpreted as the technology not being safe or beneficial to Māori.”

Conflict of interest statement: “I am a former Trustee of Te Huarahi Tika Trust and a former Director of Hautaki Ltd (2012-2016).”

Kevin Shedlock (Ngāpuhi/ Ngati Porou/ Whakatōhea descent), PhD Researcher and Assistant Lecturer, School of Engineering and Computer Science, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“Whilst there is broad discussion related to health and 5G, the 5G spectrum is an important resource platform for Māori when communicating their language, stories and culture in the digital age. The 5G spectrum provides a portal allowing Māori to be involved in industries such as radio broadcasting and mobile technology, both crucial contributors to the digital Māori workforce.

“The spectrum also provides Māori with an opportunity to connect and grow their understanding of how 5G data exists within their world, and communicate that knowledge back to iwi and hapū. Having Māori involved with such platforms can also be a positive signal for the technology sector, leading towards more academics and industry leaders showing interest in a space that demands innovative thinking.

“Furthermore, 5G is evidence of the New Zealand Government recognising their responsibility towards building capacity within the confines of the Treaty of Waitangi principles of partnership, participation and protection. However, this allocation is only a partial solution to any long-term rights (such as water rights and land treaty settlements) being confirmed, part of a complex problem for Māori working with the current Government.”

Conflict of interest statement: “I am currently writing a doctorate thesis for Monash University connecting indigenous practice to the construction of technology and the IT artefact. I am also an IT business director of a software development company and IT advisor to indigenous communities throughout Aotearoa, the Pacific region and North America.”

Dr. M R. X. Dentith, Teaching Fellow, Philosophy Programme, University of Waikato, comments:

Conspiracy theories about the harm of 5G to human health go back at least as far as 2017. However, the convergence of 5G conspiracy theories with COVID-19 conspiracy theories—which claim that 5G either is responsible for a suppressed immune response to COVID-19, or what we call ‘COVID-19’ is just a cover story for ‘5G poisoning’—is new.

“Not every 5G conspiracy theory is based upon spurious fears. Some people suspect the technologies being used in the 5G rollout will be used for surveillance purposes by either the US or China, or that the technology itself is generally insecure. These particular worries ought to be taken seriously, given the US, for example, has long argued for backdoors to be inserted into telecommunication products, and that the vendors of closed systems have a long history of suppressing information about security flaws. As such, while we might be sceptical of some 5G conspiracy theories, not all of them are inherently implausible.

“Rather, the problem with the intersection of 5G and COVID-19 conspiracy theories is they confuse correlation with causation. The COVID-19 pandemic is occurring almost at the same time as the 5G rollout (although AT&T and Verizon in the US claim to have rolled out 5G networks in the US back in December 2018), and thus this vaguely fits claims about 5G causing illnesses or making us more susceptible to them. However, evidence is lacking for a causal link between the two other than mere timing. That is, if we were to take this particular conspiracy theory seriously we would need more evidence, and unless we want to think that every government and their health departments or ministries are in on the plot to cover up the dangers of 5G, that evidence is currently lacking.”

No conflict of interest.

Professor Marc Wilson, School of Psychology, Acting Dean, Faculty of Science, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“Why do people believe in conspiracies? The smart money right now is on the idea that it serves a psychological function – it helps bring order to a disordered world, even if it’s a ‘New World Order’ (a favourite big bad among conspiracy theorists). We know, for example, that the more dramatic and negative an event, the more likely people in general are to see a conspiracy in action. This will seem counterintuitive – why choose to believe the scary notion that a shadowy group of elites is out to do bad things to people to make yourself feel better? Because the alternative is that bad things happen without rhyme or reason, and that means it could happen anytime and to anyone.

“Conspiracies are also more likely to find a niche and thrive when there is a gap in the official story – either because something is left unexplained (how certain are we that Covid-19 originated in bats? Pangolins?) or the longer it takes ‘the authorities’ to explain what happened. Take 9/11 – it took the US Government a while to work out what was going on, and that allowed people who may already have been suspicious of the Government to speculate.

“Why 5G? Professor Keith Petrie of the University of Auckland has written extensively about the increasing public concern around the risks that modern life poses for health. Our world is changing rapidly, so we’ve had little chance to get used to radical, scientific advances, and this makes us worry about the consequences. Professor Petrie calls these ‘concerns about modernity’, and has shown that they fall into four basic families: environmental pollution, toxic interventions (like fluoridation, vaccinations, amalgam fillings), tainted food (like GM foods, antibiotics in food), and radiation (cell phones, cell towers, and power lines). We’re talking about 5G here, but we could just as well be talking about vaccinations.”

No conflict of interest.

Associate Professor Ian Welch, School of Engineering and Computer Science, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“These are confusing times. When people are stressed, they search for meaning. Sometimes it is someone to blame, save, or be saved by them. When things that we don’t understand change the way we live, or seem connected to negative events in our lives, it is very easy to blame the change. That, combined with an instinct to find patterns in our lives, can lead to theories about reality that can cause problems. The origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus do not change how to deal with it as a virus spreading through the community. Theories about how it spreads and ways to stop it are much more concerning. Ingesting bleach will kill the virus and the host. Thinking that it is only an Asian disease or from foreigners, or spreading in ‘gay bars’, or related to 5G, all affect our ability to contain the potential spread of the disease.

“One way that these ideas spread are via social networks. Facebook has a network of third-party fact-checkers whose role is to put false or disputed labels on posts. Facebook has been reported as doing this to disputed stories about the cause of SARS-CoV-2 and taking down encouragements to attack cellular towers of 5G masts. On balance, this seems to be a reasonable response given that this infrastructure is used by emergency services and, in the future, will be used to increasingly connect our power infrastructure and healthcare services.

“However, there are some surprising downsides of fact-checking. There is too much content for human checkers to cope with, and this means some SARS-CoV-2 theories will still be posted without warning labels. This can lead to an undesirable ‘implied truth effect’ where unlabelled posts are implicitly thought to be accurate and fact-checked. Cybersecurity researchers are investigating automatic labelling of stories, but the problem is the accuracy and the ease by which attackers can change the articles to defeat them. There is some hope on the horizon, however. The aim behind false content is to ‘monetise fear’ through concerned people re-sharing posts and driving visitors to online advertising networks. Attackers find it harder and slower to change their advertising platform than the content of the story, meaning that their desire to make money leaves a fingerprint on the content, allowing more accurate identification.”

Conflict of interest statement:I have previously received grants from Google and Cisco related to network security.”

Professor Ekant Veer, Associate Dean of Postgraduate Research (Scholarships), University of Canterbury, comments:

“Conspiracies, such as 5G’s connection with COVID-19, tend to generate greater traction online because of the way in which social media, and our own sense of self and desire to belong, operate. Specifically, social media creates small groups that confirm our own beliefs, and the rhetoric around these groups make people who are part of them feel empowered and more aware of ‘reality’ that the mainstream who have been duped into believing that the conspiracy isn’t true. This creates a powerful narrative that those ‘in the know’ are superior, and those who doubt the conspiracy are just brainwashed sheep, further making people feel empowered.

“Our social media feeds/friends/followers will reflect our own ideals and our own ways of thinking. Very few people have a hugely diverse group of friends that actively engage in rigorous scientific debate on Facebook or Snapchat. We know that many users will actually look to purposefully create a homogeneity of thought on their social media feeds by de-friending/blocking people who argue with them or sign up to exclusive groups where people will confirm, rather than critique conspiracies. This is where problems tend to happen – the reinforcement and confirmation biases in these small groups (echo chambers) lead some to believe that these aren’t conspiracies but actual events and that only they are intelligent enough to see it.

“These social media groups are also usually created in such a manner that encourage avoidance of mainstream media, scientific evidence and the like, because they believe that these sources are all in the pocket of higher powers and lying to the masses. Basically, we have conspiracy stacked upon conspiracy and those that believe one are typically also ready to believe others (we see this with a high correlation between online engagement in both chemtrail groups and anti-vax movements online).

“These groups allow someone to feel they belong. They give them something to believe in that makes them feel superior. They have very powerful leaders who drive a narrative that this is true and they dissuade any association with scientists or experts who are usually the only inoculation to such conspiracies. Social media facilitates this all by bringing these groups together and reinforcing these beliefs to the point that they are not just attitudes, but behaviours as well. People go on to avoid vaccination and, potentially, destroy 5G towers.

“What should be further understood is that conspiracy theories are not always perpetuated by people who believe in the conspiracies. There are coordinated and easily mobilised online groups who have been known to come together to plant fake ideas into social media networks to try and get others to believe the idea. In this way, a troll may start a conspiracy theory to be mischievous, but this could lead to actual harm down the line. If a troll knows where to plant the idea and the type of narratives that are appealing to those in these groups we could find many people being deceived into believing something because it reinforces their own beliefs and further reinforced by a large number of people around them. This snowballing effect has been seen with a number of online ‘fads’ in the past, with some leading to actual harm, even though the initial intention may have only been mischievous.”

Conflict of interest statement: Professor Veer has provided unpaid consultation to social media companies.