Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

UK government slams ‘crackpot’ 5G-coronavirus theories following mast arson attacks

Suspected arson attacks have been connected to theories spreading online of 5G as a cause of coronavirus.

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The UK government has criticized social media networks for not taking a stronger stance against conspiracy theories connecting the coronavirus outbreak to 5G technologies

Conspiracy theorists claim that the next-generation wireless technology, currently being rolled out across the UK, has a detrimental impact on our health as it lowers our immune systems. As COVID-19 spreads worldwide, the idea that 5G is dangerous has now been connected to the outbreak

Over the weekend, UK Cabinet Secretary Michael Gove branded such stories -- making the rounds across Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and Pinterest -- as "dangerous nonsense." NHS England national medical director Stephen Powis is one of countless scientists who deem the rumor as baseless; branding the claims as "rubbish."

See also: Blocking China can lead to fragmented 5G market

The 5G-coronavirus theory has gone from fake news to action, with a number of suspected arson attacks taking place across masts in Birmingham, Liverpool, and Merseyside, established to support upcoming 5G networks.

The UK Government Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS) has also weighed in, saying in a tweet:

"We have received several reports of criminal damage to phone masts and abuse of telecoms engineers apparently inspired by crackpot conspiracy theories circulating online. Those responsible for criminal acts will face the full force of the law."

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The mayor of Liverpool, Joe Anderson, has also received threats over the networking equipment.

"The reality is there is huge pressure on the network at the moment with so many people at home and that's why engineers are upgrading it," Anderson told The Guardian. "The idea that I have entered into some kind of machiavellian plot with the government is ridiculous."

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Potentially in a bid to quell any further damage to the same networking infrastructure we are now reliant on to maintain contact with others during lockdown, UK Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden will hold virtual meetings with representatives from technology giants over the next week to discuss ways to tackle the spread of COVID-19/5G conspiracy theories, as reported by the BBC

It has not been confirmed which companies have been summoned by Dowden. The matter is likely to test the line between content considered harmful and free speech, but it should be noted that some social networks have already made their stance known. 

Facebook has removed groups encouraging attacks on 5G masts and YouTube considers these theories as "borderline" -- and so restricts search results that link to content related to 5G health worries but will only delete video content when coronavirus is also mentioned. 

TechRepublic: Phishing emails claim recipient has been infected with coronavirus

Little more has been done by other companies given the risk of being accused of censorship. 

This may not be enough in the current climate for regulators in the UK. The DCMS told the publication that "we must see social media companies acting responsibly and taking much swifter action to stop nonsense spreading on their platforms which encourages such acts."

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