- 24% of people believed at least one 5G conspiracy theory to be true.
- The conspiracy theory about 5G causing cancer was the theory that the most people have heard, while the theory about 5G damaging trees and plant life had the highest percentage of believers.
- The burden of not owning a cellphone still outweighs perceived negative consequences. 35.9% of people who believed a 5G conspiracy theory currently use 5G.
On Christmas morning last year, a bombing rocked downtown Nashville, Tennessee, severely damaging the city’s historic Second Avenue. A 63-year-old local, Anthony Quinn Warner, was quickly identified as the bomber.
While investigators began their efforts to understand Warner’s motive and his actions leading up to the explosion, conspiracy theorists rushed in to fill the void. The dominant theory that emerged involved the AT&T building near the scene. Reports speculated that Warner believed 5G was responsible for the death of his father and that he sought revenge on the telecommunications giant.
Conspiracy theories about 5G were already swirling before the Nashville bombing, though. Conspiracies were becoming so prevalent that the Allensbach Institute in Germany surveyed representative samples of a handful of major countries (including the U.S.) about belief in conspiracy theories. The study found that more than 1 in 5 Americans believed that, regarding conspiracy theories, “there is more to them than the official accounts of the events.”
To further explore the conspiracies surrounding 5G, we surveyed people about their familiarity with various tech-related theories (both 5G and not) and their opinions on the next generation of cellular infrastructure.
While the idea of 5G causing cancer may seem implausible to many, our survey revealed that a sizable group believes these speculations. In fact, close to a quarter of Americans believed in at least one 5G conspiracy theory.
Of the nearly 1,000 people surveyed, 2 in 3 heard their first 5G conspiracy theory in the past year. Online communities were the most common avenue where people learned of conspiracy theories. This isn’t particularly surprising given that online forums proved successful breeding grounds for other conspiracy theories, particularly the QAnon conspiracy that entered the mainstream consciousness in 2020. That elaborate conspiracy inspired many supporters of now former President Donald Trump and played a role in the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. It should come as no surprise then that political conservatives were more likely to have heard of and believe in 5G conspiracies than those identifying as politically liberal. Similarly, men, who also tend to lean conservative, were slightly more likely than women to believe in these conspiracies.
More interestingly, theories with the highest percentage of believers were the least known, such as the conspiracy that 5G damages trees or plant life. Of those surveyed, only 20% were familiar with it, yet 24% genuinely believed it.
While institutions like Columbia University have asserted that 5G will actually benefit the environment, survey responses indicate a mistrust of technology and science. From the idea that 5G exacerbates COVID-19 to the theory that Bill Gates will use the updated broadband network for brainwashing purposes, conspiracy theorists believe in ulterior motives and want to limit technology’s control over their life. Moreover, perhaps mistrust toward 5G comes from the fact many Americans have a limited understanding of it. In a survey of 2,000 consumers, Decluttr found that a third of Americans were confused about whether their smartphone used 5G. Without easily accessible information, many theorists fill in the gaps with fantastical theories with little scientific backing, if any.
More Conspiracies Catching On
Even before 5G became the center of attention, conspiracists floated around several theories from the moon landing being fake to vaccines containing tracking chips. In fact, 2 in 3 Americans are familiar with at least one conspiracy theory.
Although 5G conspiracies are much more partisan, even conservatives, liberals, and people with moderate political views believed iPhone apps record conversations without permission.
Even if privacy laws restrict phone manufacturers from secretly keeping tabs on their customers, people are resistant to big tech companies invading their privacy and often believe they do it anyway. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, tech giants have tried assisting the public through contact tracing but have been met with reluctance. Americans are simply uncomfortable with sharing their data, which inhibits companies such as Apple and Google from creating effective tracing software.
Other conspiracy theories people believed in, like oil and gas firms suppressing electric cars, appear more intuitive and believable. After all, petroleum companies have historically worked to undermine the electric car industry, as greener alternatives threaten their grip over American transportation. In this example, the conspiracy theory stems from competing firms trying to maintain their control of the transportation market, which helps explain why 44% of respondents believed in it.
Whether centered around data privacy or lizard DNA, conspiracy theories have flourished across the United States for decades. The idea of a greater chain of command making decisions behind closed doors allures and scares many, leading to some insane conspiracy theories. QAnon is again a prime example of this: The entire conspiracy is built upon the idea that a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles have controlled the “deep state government.”
Who Has Made the Switch?
While 70% of Americans have yet to make the switch to 5G, that may have nothing to do with conspiracy theories: Many Americans may not have upgraded to a device that supports 5G yet, or 5G might not be available in their area. Devices supporting 5G tend to be more expensive than alternatives, so pricing might also be giving people pause. However, given that 7 in 10 people said they are at least somewhat likely to upgrade to 5G in the next 12 months, it doesn’t appear conspiracy theories have deterred the majority of Americans from embracing 5G.
In fact, over a third of 5G conspiracy theory believers said they currently use it, so do these conspiracies have any real impact? It’s difficult to say. A majority of 5G conspiracy theorists (64%) said they still have yet to upgrade.
First, Americans have typically embraced technological trends swiftly, as evidenced by the fact 96% of those living in the U.S. own a cellphone. But if almost half of Americans believe their iPhone records them secretly, why do so many use smartphones? They have become ingrained in our world, from the way we seek information to how we communicate, so the burden of not owning a cellphone often outweighs any negative conspiracies. Similarly, 5G will eventually overtake 4G as carriers continue to increase coverage, likely forcing conspiracy theorists to adopt it out of necessity.
With the increasing use of 5G, people were split on how the government should regulate the telecommunications industry. While conservative, liberal, and moderate political identities often agreed with the current level of regulation, conservatives were the most likely to want less regulation. In contrast, liberals were the most likely to want more.
When the Federal Communications Commission approved additional network neutrality regulation in February, liberals were quick to celebrate, while conservatives threatened to overturn the ruling. Liberals tend to concern themselves with telecom companies’ essential monopoly over the industry, while conservatives fear government overreach.
Regardless of political affiliation, on the whole, a little less than half of Americans seemed content with current regulations in the telecoms industry. Although Americans are split on whether to stick with the status quo, the survey underscores how only a small minority favor fewer regulations.
As carriers continue to expand 5G coverage across the United States, we can expect to see the government have to grapple with the potential benefits and disadvantages of the next generation of cellular connectivity.
We wanted to understand how the public perceived technological conspiracy theories by collecting 991 survey responses from those familiar with 5G. Respondents were 42% women and 57.1% men. Three respondents were nonbinary and three respondents chose not to disclose their gender. The average age of respondents was 38.5 with a standard deviation of 12.2 years.
Respondents had to report that they were aware of a theory in order to answer questions about whether they believed in each theory.
As we asked survey respondents to identify themselves politically, some may have felt uncomfortable sharing their identity with us. According to the Cato Institute, 62% of Americans are afraid to share their political beliefs. Moreover, as we wanted to understand whether respondents believed in certain conspiracy theories, we did not ask them to what degree they believed in them.
The data we are presenting rely on self-report. There are many issues with self-reported data. These issues include, but are not limited to, the following: selective memory, telescoping, attribution and exaggeration.