Fifth generation (5G) wireless technology has become a flashpoint of conflict dominating our news and social feeds – from the EU to the US. Arguments against 5G range on everything from health concerns to national security.
Mainstream media has even entered into the discussions. Just on May 21, Fox News host Tucker Carlson asked his viewers: “Are 5G networks medically safe?” Carlson was not alone in publicly voicing these concerns in recent weeks. On Facebook, anti-5G Pages promoted over a dozen Irish politicians who were “against 5G” and running in European and local Irish elections in May.
But it is a narrative arc whose design demonstrates a large-scale disinformation campaign that dates back at least two years. The New York Times has tried to trace some of its genesis, based on its investigation into RT America’s latest “reporting” around “the coming ‘5G Apocalypse.”
At the GDI, we have mapped the anti-5G narrative being pushed across both American and European social media echo chambers, producing a chronological timeline which starts in 2017. This broader overview helps to demonstrate the slow and steady impact of what we’ll refer to as an adversarial narrative against 5G. A forthcoming GDI study will look at this in more detail.
Most strikingly, this timeline shows a sudden burst of simultaneous social media activity across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter at the end of May that has bolstered the anti-5G narrative (which may have preceded Carlson’s comments). Here are some of the key findings:
- Using the term “Stop 5G”, we were able to identify 123 Facebook Pages and 74 Groups.
- The total number of followers of these pages swelled from 7,005 to 59,094 during the week of May 19 (see Figure 1).
- The user base for the Facebook Groups, surged from zero on 12/30/2018 to 50,710 by the week of 05/19/19.
Figure 1: Growth of “Stop 5G” Facebook Pages and Groups
Source: CrowdTangle. Facebook pages are represented by blue trend line; Facebook groups are represented by green trend line.
- GDI tracked 43 different Instagram accounts featuring “Stop 5G” in the username, and witnessed equally similar patterns.
- The network of accounts, all seemingly new, had zero followers at the beginning of May 2019, and almost instantaneously amassed 19,027 followers between May 19-26.
Figure 2: Growth of “Stop 5G” on Instagram
- We identified 622 Twitter accounts using the hashtag #stop5G (as a username or in a tweet).
- The number of followers, which started the week of December 30, 2018 with 314,033, increased to 1.1 million during the week of May 19, 2019.
Figure 3: Growth of “Stop 5G” on Twitter
In looking at these shifts, there are clear and present suspicions of inorganic network growth. The GDI is continuing to look at its source as part of mapping the chronology of the attack against 5G.
This adversarial narrative dates back to at least to 2017 and has focused on five main themes: health, environment, big government, national security, and the economy. These are all topical areas covered on a daily basis in mainstream and fringe media, as well as in the talking points amplified by politicians.
Figure 4: Topical History of the Anti-5G Campaign
Source: GDI developed model.
As evidenced in the anti-5G campaign, adversarial narrative conflict relies on a slow and steady diet of manipulated half-truths and fabrications: i.e. disinformation. Adversarial narratives can be deconstructed into several components: claims and subclaims, web artifacts (i.e. content), and the payload.
This whole process follows a strategy that GDI has outlined below in an attempt to better understand this conflict.
- In the first phase (the “narrative incubation”) the claims and subclaims of the adversarial narrative are defined, and content (web artifacts) is created to back up the claims and subclaims.
- The second phase (“infection”) begins with the establishment of loosely connected social media networks across several platforms and an expansion in participating content creators who reinforce the payload with recycled narratives.
- The third phase (“outbreak”) occurs once the narrative payload is fully ready for deployment. Here, the overarching narrative is driven home to the reader. A steady stream of content overruns established networks. This can be done using inorganic amplification (such as bots or fake accounts) and cross-platform coordination.
For the GDI, the “adversarial narrative” against 5G is currently in this third stage. It is trying to inflame social tensions and exploit and amplify perceived grievances against individuals, groups and institutions.
By design, this type of narrative conflict weaponises both the news cycle and political rhetoric by inserting polarising and fabricated talking points, oftentimes using nominal partisan politics to cloak more toxic views that translate into full blown conspiracy theories.
Today’s online threat landscape is extremely complex and blended. Platforms and a range of actors can’t “go it alone” to tackle the problem if we are to effectively defend against adversarial narrative conflict.
At GDI, we believe that the sooner we can come together in establishing shared standards for what constitutes both problematic content and problematic behavior, the sooner we can approach our sociotechnical problems head on.
Otherwise, we will continue to see more instances like the “Stop 5G” campaigns – and more collateral damage to our societies.
As Sun Tzu once said, “He who knows the enemy and himself will never in a hundred battles be at risk; he who does not know the enemy but know himself will sometimes win and sometimes lose; he who knows neither the enemy nor himself will be at risk in every battle.”