Conspiracy theories linking 5G technology to COVID-19 have become so pervasive that Canada’s intelligence service is warning of possible extremist attacks on sites associated with the wireless network.
A confidential Canadian Security Intelligence Service report obtained by Global News anticipates that “ideologically motivated violent” (IMV) extremists may target 5G sites.
“As companies begin 5G infrastructure construction in earnest, extremists from across the IMV extremist landscape could engage in acts of arson and vandalism against that infrastructure,” the report said.
The report was among a cache of documents on the national security implications of COVID-19 released to Global News under the Access to Information Act.
The documents show CSIS has been monitoring the pandemic for the Canadian government and its international partners, focusing particularly on COVID-19 disinformation spread by authoritarian states and extremist groups.
“Given the extraordinary effect the COVID-19 pandemic has created on the lives of individuals across the world, CSIS is mindful that certain threat actors, across multiple threat landscapes, may seek to take advantage to advance their own interests,” CSIS spokesperson John Townsend said when asked about the documents.
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COVID-19 conspiracy theories have been circulated by governments trying to deflect blame for their failures, and extremist groups trying to capitalize on public anxiety.
Among the more popular is that the coronavirus is caused by radiation poisoning from 5G technology. Another claims governments are using lockdowns to build 5G infrastructure.
Perhaps the most elaborate asserts that 5G was designed by governments to depopulate the world, and is part of a broader conspiracy theory called Agenda 21 that imagines the United Nations is trying to establish a new world order.
None have any scientific validity, but white supremacists, neo-Nazis and anarchists have all adopted COVID-19 conspiracy theories to varying degrees, while the anti-vaxxer movement has promoted the notion that 5G is responsible for spreading COVID-19.
“Other conspiracy theories targeting COVID-19/5G have emerged from various online anti-capitalist, anti-technology, and environmental groups/communities,” according to the CSIS report.
A “not insignificant minority of Canadians” falsely believe in a connection between the COVID-19 pandemic and 5G technology, according to a CSIS intelligence assessment dated May 1, 2020.
“In Canada, physical opposition to 5G infrastructure is significantly less when compared to recent actions in the U.K. and Europe,” the report said.
But it said “Canadian-based online communities” were promoting the 5G conspiracy and that far-right extremist groups were trying to “capitalize on ‘5G hysteria.’”
The report noted that a cellphone tower in Laval, Que., was the target of a “significant attack” in April that caused $1 million in damage.
Another half-dozen towers were torched north of Montreal in early May. Two people were charged. None of the towers were associated with 5G networks.
A May 17 post on a QAnon Quebec Facebook page showed a cell tower burning in Italy, and generated comments such as “burn them all” and instructions on how to do so, according to the Middle East Media Research Institute.
“CSIS is aware of how conspiracy theories have the potential to inspire individuals to take violent extremist action,” Townsend said.
A terrorism expert said the 5G conspiracy theories that were popular early in the pandemic had declined as new ones had emerged within the anti-mask and anti-lockdown movements.
“As the vaccine roll-out begins, I think we should be prepared for a whole new set of conspiracies related to the vaccine as well,” said Amarnath Amarasingam, a Queen’s University professor who specializes in extremist groups.
Research has found the more people believe in conspiracy theories, the more real-world impact it has in their lives, he said, adding they were less likely to vaccinate their children or believe experts.
“So, while it would be great to ignore these fringe ideas, they sadly often have outsized impact,” Amarasingam said.
The recent wave of conspiracy theories has also been a driver of violence, he said.
“We never really saw that with past conspiracies related to 9/11 or the moon landing or the JFK assassination.”
Both 3G and 4G technology were also the subject of conspiracy theories that linked them to cancer.
The 5G conspiracy theory appears to have originated with an article in January 2020, with an article in an obscure Belgian newspaper that was soon deleted.
Its impact was felt particularly in the United Kingdom, where there have been dozens of attacks on telecommunications masts.
“Conspiracy theories linking COVID-19 and 5G have become extremely popular online and within multiple portions of the IMV landscape,” CSIS wrote.
“Within this milieu are individuals who engage in, encourage or support attacks on 5G infrastructure, and harass telecom workers,” CSIS wrote in the report, Conspiracy Theories, COVID-19 and Threats to 5G Infrastructure.