Fired up by fake news

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Keely Portway on how the optical communications industry has come together to counteract fake 5G news

I was in two minds whether to write this opinion piece. Business journalism training has instilled the belief that the editor of a magazine should not display biased views for either side of a debate. However, the more reports and posts I read on social media from key-worker fibre professionals in the UK who have found themselves at risk - not only from covid-19, but from people who think the best way to make a protest is aggression - while doing their jobs, the more I felt compelled to put pen to paper (so to speak).

This week, some of the industry’s leading businesses, organisations and the UK government joined forces to fight back against acts of vandalism and abuse, driven by ‘concern about a connection between 5G and the covid-19 outbreak’.

In the UK alone last weekend, instead of staying at home, groups of people across Liverpool and the West Midlands felt that airing their concern by setting fire to around 20 mobile phone masts was a sensible and valid reason to break quarantine. It is worth noting that, because the UK still has a way to go when it comes to 5G roll-out and the infrastructure behind it, the damage was mainly caused to 3 and 4G equipment in these masts - well done there!

Disgustingly, it is not just the equipment taking abuse. Many fibre broadband engineers and installers on the front line have reported being subject to ill treatment. A video was widely spread across social media showing a woman verbally abusing two Community Fibre engineers, as she mistakenly believed that they were installing 5G. She could be heard asking: ‘You know when they turn this on, it’s going to kill everyone, and that’s why they’re building the hospitals? Are they paying you well enough to kill people?

Handle with calm

The engineers in question have been praised for the calm way in which they handled the situation. On the company’s LinkedIn page, CEO Graeme Oxby said: ‘Community Fibre provides 100 per cent full-fibre broadband and we do not use 5G technology anywhere in our network, neither in people's homes. The video recently shared on social media is misleading. The engineers were continuing to work on our full fibre broadband network.’

In answer to one of the woman’s other points, why the engineers were out working instead of in quarantine, Oxby continued: ‘The telecommunications industry has been deemed as an essential service by the UK Government. Therefore, our engineers are classified by the government as critical workers and their work is essential to keep London connected. The safety of the public and our staff is of the utmost importance to us. Our engineers handled this situation in a polite and calm manner, whilst they were working to build the network. We would like to thank the public for all the messages of support for Community Fibre’s dedicated critical workers delivering 100 per cent full-fibre broadband to Londoners in these challenging times.

Yes, abuse such as this is actually taking place as these key workers put themselves and their families at risk to ensure that the UK remains connected during the covid-19 pandemic. They are the reason we can safely stay indoors and stream films, television shows and free exercise videos with our families. Without them, people would not enjoy strong enough internet connections to read/watch/listen to conspiracy theories, I mean, work from home.

The missing link

I don’t want to go into too much detail about whether I believe in this seemingly wild theory or not. But in all the in-depth research that has been undertaken on the subject - and there is a lot - no link has reportedly been found between 5G and covid-19, or indeed any other illness. 

A report from the BBC News detailed responses from actual scientists on this, including Dr Simon Clarke, associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, who believes the theory that 5G lowers the immune system ‘doesn't stand up to scrutiny.’ Likewise, Adam Finn, professor of paediatrics at the University of Bristol explained: ‘Viruses and electromagnetic waves that make mobile phones and internet connections work are different things. As different as chalk and cheese.’

Speaking at one of the UK's recent daily government conferences on coronavirus, Stephen Powis, medical director of NHS England, also dismissed the claims as ‘the worst kind of fake news’, adding: ‘I'm absolutely outraged, absolutely disgusted, that people would be taking action against the very infrastructure that we need to respond to this health emergency.’

UK fact checking charity, Full Fact, meanwhile, had this to say: 'As we have written before, there is no evidence to suggest that 5G has anything to do with Covid-19—the illness caused by the new coronavirus.'

To try and counteract the spread of false information, the UK’s Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden is working with social media companies to ensure that people ‘follow expert medical advice and stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives.’ It is vital, said Dowden, ‘that this message hits home and that misinformation and disinformation which undermines it is knocked down quickly. We’re working with social media companies, and I’ll be pressing them for further action to stem the spread of falsehoods and rumours which could cost lives.’

This action could include responses to false information on social media after the government’s Rapid Response Unit coordinates with departments across Whitehall to deploy the appropriate response. It could be a direct rebuttal on social media, removal of harmful content and/or ensuring public health campaigns are promoted through reliable sources.

In response

In response to the recent levels of violence and vandalism, there have, as you may expect, been a number of industry spokespeople making their views known. Industry organisation representing mobile network operators worldwide, GSMA issued a statement from director general Mats Granryd. It said: ‘The telecoms industry is working around the clock to keep vital health, education and emergency services online, businesses running, and friends and families connected. It is deplorable that critical communications infrastructure is being attacked based on outright mistruths. We urge everyone to trust health authorities and rest assured communications technology is safe. There is no link between 5G and covid-19.’

UK trade association for mobile network operators, Mobile UK issued an open letter, signed by its member companies EE, O2, Three and Vodafone. It said: ‘Our networks provide essential connectivity to our emergency services and the NHS; they enable families to check in on their isolated or vulnerable loved ones; parents to teach their children from home; and millions to be informed and entertained as they stay home. We are 100 per cent focused on making sure the UK’s mobile and broadband networks are resilient, ensuring you, your families and businesses, can keep connected when you need it most.

Sadly, we have experienced cases of vandals setting fire to mobile masts, disrupting critical infrastructure and spreading false information suggesting a connection between 5G and the COVID-19 pandemic. There is no scientific evidence of any link between 5G and coronavirus. Fact. Stopping this is critical to keeping your communities connected.

‘Not only are these claims baseless, they are harmful for the people and businesses that rely on the continuity of our services. They have also led to the abuse of our engineers and, in some cases, prevented essential network maintenance taking place. Please help us to make this stop. If you witness abuse of our key workers please report it. If you see misinformation, please call it out. Your help will make a real difference. Thank you for your support as we work together to keep our nation connected.’

Only human

Now, I’ve already stated that this is not about my personal beliefs when it comes to whether 5G has any kind of link to this horrible pandemic. If I say I don’t believe it, well, as the editor of a business magazine in a market that is driven by 5G, I probably would say that wouldn’t I? If I buy into the theories, I’d almost certainly have to ask myself what on earth I’m doing in this job at all! 

The extent of opinion I shall offer on the topic is that the kinds of actions detailed above are almost certainly borne of fear. But if someone feels so frightened by this outbreak, and believes the 5G = covid-19 theories, surely the best way to protect themselves is to stay at home where it is safe, both from the virus and all the nasty electromagnetic waves. Feeling fear is, of course, only human, and one can only hope that perhaps these people begin to tap into this humanity and, you know,  not vandalise things or abuse folk who are just trying to do their job. My advice to our readers, advertisers and other industry friends out there trying to keep the world connected in unprecedented circumstances is to keep doing what you are doing! Keep handling everything with the same level of dignity exhibited by the Community Fibre engineers.

Thank you!

What I do believe is that all the engineers, installers and other telecoms professionals out there on the front line are ensuring that I can do my job at home, not lose any wages, and still catch up with my colleagues by video conference. If this is you, and you’re reading this, thank you so very much on behalf of myself and the Fibre Systems team! If there is anything we can do to make your job easier - even if it’s just a platform to have your say, or offer advice to others, please let us know.

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