We like to think that we live in the 21st century. Yet this April, 5G towers have been set ablaze across the United Kingdom like it is 1672 and the phone masts are single property owning women in Salem, Massachusetts.
Rumor has it, 5G towers are responsible for the spread of the coronavirus disease in Wuhan, China, and other cities that have embraced the supposedly ominous technology. Thinking it is better to be safe than sorry, some unidentified citizens of Birmingham decided they would take matters into their own hands and burn the towers to the ground.
The irony is hard to miss. Misinformation about COVID-19 spread like a virus on Facebook. Some readers were asymptomatic, not believing the tall tales of the evils of 5G, but others quickly came down with a nasty case of paranoia. Where did these rumors originate? Article after article details the madness that infected countless people, but not one can pinpoint the source of the information.
The lack of source material lets this single rumor mutate at lightning speed creating a dozen versions of the same story, from the COVID-5G connection to rumors of infertility caused by the towers. As Elise Thomas, writer in Foreign Policy, puts it, the use of hashtags on posts splice the information into pieces, creating a digital petri dish for new rumors.
While the original source of the rumors remains hidden, some celebrities have taken it upon themselves to share their two cents on the ills of the newest cell towers. They should really stick to solving food insecurity in children of low-income households by reading to them. In all fairness, the #SavewithStories campaign has also worked to raise money for groups delivering food to those who cannot afford groceries.
This would not be the first time that Facebook has caused fake news to spread like wildfire. Facebook has taken measures to protect against the spread of false information regarding the coronavirus, but that has not stopped conspiracy theorists and armchair investigators from spinning wild tales.
If you still do not believe that these conspiracy theories are quickly populating the internet, all you have to do is type in any wild thought you have about COIVD-19, its origins and its impact and you will, in fact, find that someone has already made a blog post about it.
Wondering if George Soros is behind this one too? You would not be the first. Wondering which lab unleashed coronavirus as a sick medical experiment? So are dozens of popular news sources. There is not one conspiracy theory you can think of that at least one tinfoil hat sporting, lizard-people hating internet detective has not thought of already. Yes, the lizard-people have been implicated in this one too.
Even Bill Gates, the philanthropist who has led the effort to contain and cure coronavirus, is not safe from bogus accusations. He has become the target for Right-wing conspiracy theorists who shamelessly claim that Gates created the virus to profit from it without a shred of evidence, according to The New York Times.
As easy as it is to point and laugh at conspiracy theorists, we should be asking ourselves a few key questions. Why are people so vulnerable to misinformation? Who is spreading these rumors? Who benefits from the confusion and chaos that ensues?
While the source of the alternative facts may be well hidden under layers of internet forums and forwarded posts, looking at who stands to gain from the confusion is a good indicator. The first beneficiaries are those selling snake oil cures for coronavirus including a "church" down in Florida. Another potential profiteer includes news outlets who lure in readers with outrageous headlines. The more confused you are, the more likely to tune in to anyone claiming to have an answer.
Confusion is not the only thing that breeds gullible viewers. Fear and excitement play a significant role as well. To believe in a conspiracy is to believe not only that there is a mysterious common enemy looking to neuter healthy citizens with 5G towers, but also that you are one of the few people who were able to unearth their schemes.
It is a combination of fantasy and pride. Conspiracy theorists make the world excitingly dangerous and make us equipped to fight back. Flat Earthers are a wonderful display of this phenomenon.
Coronavirus conspiracies take this delusion to a heightened level because anxiety makes people hyperaware of any threats around them and it alters cognitive ability. Scared citizens see plots and conspiracies where there are not any because they are already on edge. They are afraid of being swindled by their governments, the ‘elite’, the 1%, and begin to look for scapegoats.
The real conspiracies (an oxymoron, I know) are passing by just under the current of coronavirus. While we are all waiting for our stimulus check, Congress is trying to muscle through H.R. 6172, a bill that would reauthorize Section 215, a segment of the USA Patriot Act that allowed U.S. citizens’ phone records to be collected.
The American Civil Liberties Union, ever vigilant, pointed out that Congress had years to reauthorize this section and amend it as necessary. The reason that it is being shoved through now is that headlines are already filled with COVID-19 updates and people’s attention is elsewhere. H.R. 6172 can pass quietly while everyone is screaming about pandemics and quarantine.
A Congress that would take advantage of citizens’ panic to pass questionable legislation is the real threat to our democracy. A government that takes advantage of that same panic to use geolocation services to track the spread of the virus is the real threat. Corporations that have refused and continue to refuse to give sufficient sick leave to their "essential employees" while profiting off their backs are the real threat.
We strawman our societal problems and corrupt systems of government into lizard-people and evil cell towers because we are afraid we cannot outsmart the boogymen we see in elected positions, on TV and in corporate offices.
Alice Militaru is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year majoring in economics. Her column, "Opinions No One Asked For," runs on alternate Tuesdays.
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