Last month, protesters started showing up twice a week outside a middle school in Eugene, Oregon. They held up signs and tried to win over people walking by to their cause, and chanted about their concerns.
Their real target wasn’t the school, though. It was a nearby cellphone tower operating on the new 5G network.
The tower, the protesters claim, will have drastic health consequences for the nearby middle-school students.
“There are people who literally have had heart attacks and died from this stuff,” retiree Victor Odlivak, a member of the group, told The Daily Beast.
Odlivak and other members of the group also bike around Eugene with a machine called a TriField Meter, a $150 device that registers the electromagnetic fields.
“We can see the needle pulsing, we can see the needle shaking,” Odlivak said.
The Eugene protests are just the latest outcropping of internet conspiracy theories surrounding 5G networks, the latest, fastest wave of cell network technology. YouTube videos promising dire consequences from 5G networks have proliferated online, earning millions of views with claims that the technology will cause cancer or even be a tool for government mind-control. The fear has translated to protests across the world where opponents have had some success.
Members of a California town managed to block new cell towers, at least temporarily, on the grounds that they didn’t go through the right environmental approval process. In Australia, a mayor agreed to push back on 5G installations last month after opponents carrying “No 5G” signs packed a city council meeting. Another group on New York’s Long Island has been created to organize protests to the 5G towers.
Fears about cellphones causing cancer date back to the 1990s. But as phones and towers have become ever-present, these fears mostly receded and now are relegated to the internet fringe—where they’ve resurfaced in the form of new fears about 5G.
The protests are happening even though there’s next to no scientific evidence that 5G, or any earlier wireless technology, causes cancer or other illnesses. There’s “very little evidence” that cell towers cause cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. The Federal Communications Commission has ruled that cellphone tower broadcasts are “thousands of times below safety limits.” The World Health Organization says that “current evidence does not confirm the existence of any health consequences from exposure to low-level electromagnetic fields.”
The largest conspiracy-theory outlets have gone wild with claims about 5G, which tend to attract large viewerships on video channels like YouTube. Alex Jones’s Infowars has published dozens of ominous stories decrying the new 5G towers, predicting a “front for global control” that will be used to “destroy the population.”
“I don’t understand it except for as a way for the military-industrial complex to take all our money,” Odlivak said by phone from Oregon.
Russian government-owned TV channel RT has also pushed conspiracy theories about 5G. In one January segment that has earned more than a million views on YouTube, RT anchor Rick Sanchez admits that he had to quickly look up 5G on Wikipedia before warning his viewers about it—but he then plunges into the dire concerns anyway.
“Is there a catch?” Sanchez asks RT reporter Michelle Greenstein in the clip.
“There is, just a small one: It might kill you,” Greenstein says.
5G conspiracy theories are fueled by a number of fake “news stories” that supposedly show the technology’s dire effects. 5G opponents often cite a test that supposedly killed hundreds of birds in the Netherlands, for example, a claim that originally spread in a series of viral Facebook posts. But in reality, that test happened months before the birds’ mysterious death.
5G opponents point out that 5G will require more, smaller “small cell” broadcasters, which they claim will increase the level of danger. They also worry about 5G’s use of “beams,” as opposed to previous cell towers, which would push data out in a wider circle. They’re afraid that the “beam” will be so concentrated that it’ll affect their health, said Martin Rowe, a senior technical editor at electrical engineering trade publication EE Times who has reported on the conspiracy theories.
In a statement, the CTIA, a wireless-industry trade association, said that “the scientific evidence shows no known health risk” from the cell broadcasts.
In fact, according to Rowe, the beam might actually reduce the amount of electromagnetic energy being sent out from the towers.
“You’re not wasting power sending it somewhere else where it isn’t being used,” Rowe said.
The concerns about 5G often echo earlier worries about other new technologies. A number of 5G opponents, like Odlivak, came to oppose 5G networks after originally being concerned about other electronic devices like smart meters from electric utilities, which have long attracted conspiracy theorists worried that they’re either spy devices or secretly harmful to their health.
Sandi Maurer, an anti-5G activist who runs a website devoted to opposing 5G and other cellular technology devices, said she became interested in opposing the towers after she claims she experienced negative health effects from a smart meter.
“Whenever there’s a new technology, people tend to come up with these theories,” Rowe said. “And the next one, whatever that is, there’ll be a new theory.”