Coronavirus: Tech Firms Called Over ‘Crackpot’ 5G Conspiracies

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The culture secretary is to instruct social media companies to be more forceful in their response to conspiracy theories connecting 5G networks to the coronavirus pandemic.

Oliver Dowden plans to call virtual meetings with representatives from numerous tech firms next week to talk over the matter.

It follows a number of 5G masts seemingly being set on fire.

The subject will test the companies’ commitments to free speech.

Previously in the week, fires were reported at masts in Birmingham, Melling and Liverpool in Merseyside.

A spokesperson for Vodafone’s mobile network told the BBC there had been a sum of four further incidents over the last 24 hours at both its own sites and those shared with O2, but did not categorize the locations.

“We have gotten several reports of criminal damage to phone masts and mistreatment of telecoms engineers seemingly inspired by crackpot conspiracy theories flowing online,” said a spokeswoman for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

“Those responsible for illegal acts will face the force of the law.

“We must also see social media companies acting sensibly and taking much quicker action to stop gibberish spreading on their platforms which boosts such acts.”

DCMS has yet to check which tech companies are being called.

‘Total rubbish’

Untrue theories are being spread on smaller platforms such as Pinterest, Nextdoor and the petitions site Change.org and also the larger ones including Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and TikTok.

Scientists have said the impression of a connection between Covid-19 and 5G is “total rubbish” and biologically impossible.

Many of the platforms have already taken steps to address the problem but have not forbidden discussion of the subject outright.

Pinterest, for instance, restricts its search results for coronavirus and associated terms to showing pinned information from recognized health organisations but does not have a similar restriction for 5G.

Facebook said it had also taken down a number of groups that were motivating attacks on 5G masts.

Though, a post entitled “burn baby burn – it’s begun”, which complemented videos of telecoms equipment afire, was only taken down about six hours after it was identified to the company’s press office.

YouTube prohibits some types of bogus posts about Covid-19, but classes conspiracy theories relating the virus to 5G as “borderline content”. As a consequence, it said it tries to decrease the frequency its algorithms recommend them, but does not remove the videos from its platform.

A spokesperson for the Google-owned service said it planned to “evaluate the impact” of this approach. It did, though, remove one video flagged by the BBC that included threatening language.

Change.org said its open character allowed anyone to file a petition about any issue they cared about, but added they must conform with its guidelines to stay online.

“We have deleted a number of petitions making unconfirmed health claims about 5G from the platform,” a spokeswoman added.

Vodafone has said the assaults are “now a matter of national security”

“It defies belief that some people should want to damage the very networks that are giving essential connectivity to the disaster services, the NHS, and the remaining country during this difficult lockdown period,” penned UK chief executive Nick Jeffery.

“It also makes me angry to discover that some people have been harassing our engineers as they go about their business.

“Online stories linking the spread of coronavirus to 5G are absolutely baseless. Please don’t circulate them on social media – false news can have serious outcomes.”

The GSMA – a trade body that denotes the wider mobile industry – also advised social media and other content-hosting providers to “hasten their efforts to delete fake news” relating to the problem.

 

The drive against 5G has been booming on social media for the last year.

Facebook in precise has been full of groups asserting the technology is hazardous, with many of them also propagating anti-vaccine messages.

Until lately, apart from the odd fact-checking message together with posts, the companies have done little to fight this trend. Neither Twitter nor YouTube, for example, has an option in their reporting systems to flag distortion.

Even on Friday, criticisms to Facebook moderators about a group that appeared to inspire arson attacks on 5G masts received answers saying the page did “not violate our community standards” – though after the BBC called Facebook’s press office it was taken down.

In usual times, social media platforms are very unwilling to curb what they regard as a vital part of their mission: giving people the right to free expression, however bizarre or unscientific their views.

But these are not usual times.

The government is efficiently waging a war against a lethal virus, and keyworkers looking after fundamental infrastructure are facing abuse, possibly stimulated by these social media campaigners.

That means there is now strong pressure on the likes of Facebook, TikTok, YouTube and Twitter to combat what one minister has called “risky nonsense” – and they will want to be seen to be acting sensibly, even if some of their users call censorship.

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