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YouTube slaps partial ban on 5G conspiracy videos amid arson attacks

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Following attacks on telecoms infrastructure by conspiracy theorists in the UK, YouTube has announced plans to crack down on content promoting unsubstantiated claims relating the 5G rollout to the coronavirus pandemic, although it will not remove all content promoting 5G conspiracy theories.

At least seven mobile masts have been targeted with arson attacks in the past week, including in Melling, Liverpool, Belfast, and Birmingham (the Birmingham-based mast did not have 5G capability). Videos of the attacks were posted on social media platforms afterwards. Mayor of Liverpool Joe Anderson said that he had been threatened after he dismissed the conspiracy theories as “bizarre”.

Telecoms engineers (including employees of broadband companies) have also reported verbal and physical threats motivated by conspiracy theories linking 5G technology with Covid-19.

Many conspiracy theories have sprung up during the coronavirus pandemic, which has so far resulted in over a million confirmed infections and more than 70,000 deaths. Some of these conspiracy theories claim that 5G technology is causing or aggravating the pandemic, such as by weakening human immune systems or “sucking oxygen out of [the] lungs”. This notion has been promoted by television presenter Amanda Holden, singer Anne-Marie, American actor Woody Harrelson, celebrity choreographer Jason Gardiner, and athlete Amir Khan.

Covid-19 breakouts have no correlation with 5G rollouts, with countries such as Iran struggling with high infection rates despite having no 5G service. Mobile operators design and build telecoms infrastructure in compliance with the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection’s evidence-based exposure guidelines, which ensure that there is no adverse health effect associated with normal exposure.

Despite the conspiracy theories having no scientific basis whatsoever, the real-life attacks on telecoms infrastructure and harassment of engineers has prompted lawmakers, business leaders, and internet platforms to speak out against them.

Vodafone UK CEO Nick Jeffrey commented: “It beggars belief that some people should want to harm the very networks that are providing essential connectivity to the emergency services, the NHS, and the rest of the country during this lockdown period.” Of the seven masts confirmed to have been set on fire, two were Vodafone masts and two were shared between Vodafone and O2.

BT CEO Marc Allera wrote on Twitter: “Phone masts keep us all connected at this extraordinary time. And yet we’re seeing reports of masts vandalised because of a conspiracy theory linking 5G tech to the spread of Covid-19. This claim is baseless. We must look after the infrastructure and people keeping us in touch.”

The international communications trade body, the GSMA, also spoke out against the attacks, with director general Mats Granryd describing the attacks on infrastructure and people keeping vital services running as “deplorable” and based on “outright mistruths”.

Stephen Powis, national medical director at NHS England, said that the conspiracy theories are “complete and utter rubbish”. He added: “The reality is that the mobile phone networks are absolutely critical to all of us, particularly in a time when we are asking people to stay home and not see relatives and friends. But, in particular, those are also the phone networks used by our emergency services and our health workers and I am absolutely outraged, absolutely disgusted, that people would be taking action against the very infrastructure that we need to respond to this health emergency.”

Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove decried the idea as “dangerous nonsense”, and the Guardian reported that Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden will meet with representatives from Facebook, Google, and Twitter to discuss the issue and make it clear that disinformation about 5G must be countered.

YouTube told the Guardian that it will remove videos that connect Covid-19 with 5G due to violation of policies forbidding “medically unsubstantiated methods” of protecting against the infection which may discourage viewers from seeking medical treatment. One of the videos which was removed by YouTube (though not before it had gained serious traction) featured a man who claimed to be a former Vodafone “executive” – who appeared to not understand the distinction between wired and wireless connections – stating that the pandemic was being used to mask deaths caused by 5G technology. The video was later reuploaded by different channels.

The platform will not remove all 5G conspiracy theory videos. It may take action to suppress “borderline” videos – which may sow doubt about the safety of 5G, for instance – such as by reducing recommendations, removing them from search results, and demonetising them.

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