January 15, 2021
IntelBrief: Will 5G Conspiracy Theories Motivate Future Acts of Violence?
The world watched in horror last week as a violent mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, ransacking Congressional office buildings, threatening lawmakers and staff with bodily harm, and catalyzing a wave of destruction that left several dead. Included in this group was a police officer who died in the line of duty, and was part of the very institution the mob thought would protect them. A significant portion of the mob was likely motivated by QAnon, a quixotic movement mobilized by a range of conspiracy theories, including the notion that political elites are engaged in the widespread trafficking and abuse of children and that the President was a savior coming to disband a satanic ‘Deep State.’ The FBI labeled QAnon a domestic terrorism threat, and over the course of the past year, it has continued to grow in prominence. President Trump has given QAnon a heightened platform by refusing to publicly disavow them and instead saying he knew ‘nothing about it.’ Conspiracies do not have to be plausible in order to motivate individuals to commit acts of vandalism and violence in their name. During the COVID-19 pandemic, disinformation has proliferated online, with more people spending time isolated, anxious and online, and conspiracies have gained greater currency.
Another popular conspiracy that is also gaining traction is the “5G conspiracy”, which stipulates that the coronavirus pandemic is a direct result of radiation from electromagnetic frequencies generated by 5G towers. Across Europe and North America, cell towers have been attacked and destroyed. There have been attacks in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and throughout the United States. Cities and countries across the world are bracing for an increase in attacks against critical infrastructure. While some would dismiss these incidents as the work of deranged individuals, the attacks themselves are still dangerous—evident from the Christmas Day bombing perpetrated by Anthony Quinn Warner in Nashville, Tennessee. Authorities are still working to discern a motive, but some believe he was deliberately targeting a building housing an AT&T switch facility. Some reports suggest that Warner believed his father’s dementia and perhaps death were the result of working for BellSouth, a telecommunications company that merged with AT&T in 2006.
The 5G conspiracy theory may fuel the resurgence of violence perpetrated by neo-Luddites, or those with an extreme aversion to emerging technologies. The neo-Luddite ideology was in part what fueled attacks by the ‘Unabomber,’ Ted Kaczynski. Advances in artificial intelligence and virtual reality could give rise to a new crop of terrorists seeking to push back against what these individuals see as a takeover of society by emerging technologies. Some people have expressed anguish that these new technologies will upend their place in society, leaving them jobless as automation and robotics replace humans in critical sectors like manufacturing. Wireless technology conspiracies have existed for years, linked to debates about whether mobile phones lead to brain cancer or mind control. While it is easy to dismiss these notions as harmless online chatter among those wearing ‘tin foil hats’, the Nashville bombing – and then the attack on the Capitol last week - demonstrated the real-world impact of online conspiracies, and their lasting ability to foment violence.
Conspiracy theories like 5G and QAnon dovetail with deliberate disinformation campaigns waged by malign state and non-state actors. Russian-backed organizations have repeatedly amplified conspiracy theories online, promoting accounts through an army of botnets and ‘sockpuppets.’ Conspiracies related to 5G have also been pushed by the Russian television network RT, as well as celebrity conspiracy theorist Alex Jones through his popular website Infowars, which has ‘5G Kills’ t-shirts available for purchase on the site. In an interview with the CTC Sentinel, the European Union’s Counter-Terrorism Coordinator, Gilles de Kerchove, expressed concern that a ‘major change in society’ is taking place and will be accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic. He went on to warn about the potential for new forms of terrorism to emerge in the future, including those ‘rooted in conspiracy theories’ and what he referred to as ‘technophobia,’ or a growing and pervasive fear of technology. The United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) compiled an intelligence report that echoes de Kerchove’s assessment, warning about attacks against infrastructure globally and concluding that ‘these threats probably will increase…including calls for violence against telecommunications workers.’ The rhetoric among members of the mob that attacked the Capitol only serves to confirm that conspiracies need not be plausible to have alarming mobilizing potential.