By David Farrier
Analysis - Two conspiracy theories have merged into something very nasty online and into real world violence.
Over the weekend we saw another suspicious fire at a cellphone tower, this time in South Auckland. This comes off the back of a string of arson attacks over the last six weeks: 10 in Auckland, and another four in Wellington and Northland.
The attacks led the New Zealand Telecommunications Forum to put out a press release last week, asking for Kiwis to be extra vigilant in reporting suspicious behaviour.
Vodafone, Spark and 2Degrees were on board with the messaging, which isn't surprising seeing as their property was going up in flames.
"These attacks are infuriating and can have real connectivity impacts for New Zealanders - meaning people could have reduced mobile phone and internet coverage in an area with a damaged cell site, which is a real issue particularly in South Auckland," said Vodafone's Tony Baird.
"Attacks on critical infrastructure are inexcusable at the best of times, let alone during a pandemic. A disruption to mobile connectivity can put New Zealanders at risk by cutting off access to critical services like 111," pleaded Mark Beder from Spark.
Reading the headlines, it would be easy to think this was a sudden, bizarre outburst of crime. But the paranoia around 5G has been growing for years. Introduce paranoia around Covid-19, and that's when the towers start burning.
I'm a member of nearly all the private Anti-5G groups on Facebook - and the response to the fires is both unsurprising, and abhorrent. The last of these includes an incitement to violence against the prime minister.
It was unsurprising to me, because I've already experienced plenty of this type of abuse myself over the last year.
The first time was after I emerged from a screening of Mandy, a very unhinged film starring Nicolas Cage. Still reeling from the movie, I was approached by a man who asked if I felt guilty spreading lies about 5G.
I don't mind people approaching me to have a chat about things they're passionate about, but this particular man just seemed quite… rude. He didn't introduce himself, and spoke to me with what I could only describe as disdain.
See, last year I did a TV commercial for Spark 5G. I'd never done an advert before, but I'm a fan of technology and the series aimed to highlight New Zealanders doing cool things with 5G. I definitely expected (and welcomed) plenty of teasing for "selling out", but what I didn't expect was the torrent of abuse landing in my Facebook inbox. A certain subset of New Zealander appeared absolutely enraged.
They made it very clear that 5G was going to mean the death of their children, and that I was now partially responsible for that.
And nothing I could say could convince them otherwise.
I became curious, so started joining various anti-5G groups. Back then, there was no talk of 5G carrying Covid-19, because the pandemic didn't even exist.
The general discussion focussed around an absolute belief that radiation from 5G was dangerous (and definitely more dangerous than 4G), and that there was a conspiracy between the New Zealand government, local councils and the telcos to keep this information secret.
The great thing about a brand new conspiracy theory is that you can trace its origins reasonably quickly. It's like religion: The origins of Christianity are a lot harder to nail down than, say, Scientology - where we can listen to audio and read accounts of L Ron Hubbard dreaming the whole thing up.
And when it comes to the origin of the 5G conspiracy theory, Ben Decker of the Global Disinformation Index has traced it back to a speech given in July 2016.
"The conversation largely relies on two speeches made by former US Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler in June and July of 2016 regarding the rollout of 5G.
"Much of the criticism of the infrastructure plan hinged upon one theme: how the technology will come to define every vector of our lives. At the National Press Club in June, Wheeler heralded the adoption of 5G networks and noted that 'Turning innovators loose is far preferable to expecting committees and regulators to define the future.'
"Less than one month later, at a press hearing at FCC headquarters on July 14, ahead of the vote to adopt 5G, Wheeler was blitzed by a combination of health risk related questions."
Twelve days later, a YouTube video called The Truth About 5G asked viewers, "Is there a clandestine force working behind the scenes in the United States, censoring truth about the "5G" rollout? Watch this - then decide".
From there, the 5G conspiracy theory leapt from YouTube videos to Twitter hashtags like #stop5G.
By October of 2017, it had migrated to Reddit's notorious r/conspiracy subreddit, with a post titled "5G and the smart grid is the New World Order".
Six months later, professional conspiracy theorist David Icke jumped on board. By May of 2018, Alex Jones' InfoWars was churning out 5G content daily.
"LESSGOO PEOPLE. Time to rise," posted one.
"Can I advertise these for sale down here in Central e hoa please," wrote another.
These New Zealanders don't want to just buy them, they want to spread the cause.
While the various 5G theories had been cooking for nearly four years, the Covid-19 theories were created quickly, and spread very quickly.
This was mostly simply due to the size of the story. 5G started as this small conversation - whereas Covid-19 was a world-wide pandemic on everyone's minds.
The New York Times ran this eloquent piece, explaining, "Claims that the virus is a foreign bioweapon, a partisan invention or part of a plot to re-engineer the population have replaced a mindless virus with more familiar, comprehensible villains. Each claim seems to give a senseless tragedy some degree of meaning, however dark."
There's also a decent amount of data pointing to a targeted disinformation campaign.
The end result is that you probably saw people posting about Plandemic. Or some senseless meme will have invaded your Facebook feed, hinting that social distancing was put in place so that facial recognition cameras could get a better hit rate.
You could see the Covid-19 and 5G conspiracy theories merging in real time, simply by watching the daily briefings with Jacinda Ardern.
No doubt some of the remarks were ironic or trolling, but watching the comments in the private Facebook groups going on at the same time, there is little doubt many of them were dead serious.
So serious, some of their supporters decided to start lighting cell towers on fire. It was hardly an original concept: Like the conspiracy theory itself, kiwis were simply mimicking behaviour they'd seen overseas.
A cell tower was set alight in Birmingham in early April, a week before the first New Zealand case.
Tech giants started to try and intervene last month, too - WhatsApp banned mass-forwarding in an attempt to curtail health misinformation spreading, and David Icke's Anti-5G tirade saw YouTube taking videos offline. But it appeared to be too little, too late.
And so while most of New Zealand rolled their eyes when the prime minister and the director general of health were memorably asked about 5G… a non-trivial group of people didn't.
For them, this flat denial from the government just proved their theories correct. This was a conspiracy that went right to the top. And in the groups, they continued to cheer the arsonists on.
I don't think I can stomach these groups for much longer. Due to the volume of posts being made by members - and thanks to Facebook just being Facebook - it's changed my entire experience on the site. My news feed is clogged by this stuff, to the point where I can't avoid it.
I can only imagine what that does to a brain that's already accepted this reality as the truth.
And I can't help but think the lockdown world looked particularly frightening to those terrified of 5G, because it's the world they fear will become a permanent reality. A world devoid of human life. The same world they saw looking out their windows during lockdown.
They literally think that 5G will kill us.
Where does this end? I'm not sure. Probably when the next conspiracy theory comes along, and people realise those cell towers aren't quite as deadly as they first thought.
But then, I would say that, wouldn't I? I was in a f***ing 5G commercial.
So go and check some news sources you trust. The BBC has a good read here about the science behind 5G. So does Forbes, and our own Dr Michelle Dickinson.
But if you have friends who don't believe scientists or newsrooms, then I would point them towards this paper from the UK-based not-for-profit Global Disinformation Index.
Because if people can understand how this disinformation travels, they may start to understand how unsubstantiated these claims are to begin with.
They may think twice about petitioning local councils about the dangers of 5G, or sharing the latest meme on their wall.
As that disinformation paper concludes, "Adversarial narratives like 'Stop 5G' are effective because they inflame social tensions by exploiting and amplifying perceived grievances of individuals, groups and institutions. The end game is to foster long-term conflict - social, political and economic."
As cell towers burn in Aotearoa, it appears that end game is already here. But I like to think that when the next big conspiracy theory comes along, people can catch it earlier. Or at least pause for a moment, and reflect on what happened last time.
This article was first published in The Spinoff