Case Study 1: Wood River Valley, Idaho & 5G
“Disinformation starts at home” series: When disinformation is discussed as part of the 2016 elections, the realignment of the global order, or overarching issues connected to adversarial states, it becomes an issue that seems huge and far away for many people. We are all prone to believing that disinformation is something that works on someone else, not on us. But the truth is, it works on all of us. And more importantly, it is at play in the communities around us, and impacting our neighbors, our behavior, how we make decisions, and the requests that we make of government, as well as the decisions that local governments and leaders are making. This series will explore how disinformation is impacting local communities, and why it matters.
Case Study 1: Wood River Valley, Idaho & 5G
A year ago, I was cited in a New York Times science article that examined how and why Russian state media was promoting anti-5G conspiracy theories. Like any good dad, my dad, who lives in the mountains in Idaho, thought it was pretty cool that I was mentioned in the science section of the NYT, so he has tracked the issue, sending me articles about other anti-5G content that he comes across. When I was home in Idaho for Christmas, he started reading out loud (as good dads do!) an article from the Idaho Mountain Express about a citizens’ anti-5G action group that had formed in our small local community. Way out here in what most people would deem the middle of nowhere, the strange disinformation-driven crusade against 5G data networks had arrived. Soon after, the same paper ran the first of many letters to the editor on this subject.
5G, with data transmission speeds 100 times faster than 4G technology, is heralded for the coming innovations in everything from self driving cars to robotic surgery to an agricultural revolution. But parallel to its roll-out has been an assault of disinformation and conspiracy theories about it, some of which leverage longstanding, unproven theories about the impact of cellphones on health. Others posit a coming “5G apocalypse” vaguely reminiscent of the episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that reveals that warp travel is ripping apart the fabric of space-time, but combined with elements of the fear that turning on the Large Hadron Collider might end the universe (spoiler: it didn’t). If you read the many sites dedicated to this material, or watch the many YouTube “documentaries” dedicated to “revealing” the truth about 5G, it all starts to sound quite dire. But as summarized in the NYT articles linked above, these 5G theories are based in faulty “science” assumptions, and amplified by Kremlin disinformation and others.
So how on earth did it reach enough minds in a mountain community to result in the formation of a citizens’ action group to “Stop 5G in 5B” (5B is the license plate designation for Blaine County, Idaho, which includes the Wood River Valley, where this activity was occurring)?
I began tracking content on the Wood River Valley group and what they were doing. For me it was an interesting example of how conspiracy theories and disinformation reach our local communities and well-meaning citizens, and can have significant impacts on local governance issues and economies.
At first glance, the content from the local citizens’ group was nothing particularly extraordinary. It was mostly women, essentially a group of “mommy blog”-types who overlapped and allied with anti-vaxxers and health-truthers and others that were swimming in the broader disinformation cascade of the Internet and social media. But the “mommy blog” groups, which target information to concerned parents, can be particularly troublesome and dangerous vectors of bad information. “Natural News” — a near-peer counterpart of InfoWars, but organized around health and wellness conspiracies — is a good example of the toxic disinformation that dominates the alternative health theories ecosystem, the best example of which has been the spread of anti-vaccine conspiracies.
The searches that lead people to this ecosystem are often motivated by well-intentioned concerns, but travelers quickly find themselves in the strange, firmly entrenched universe of fake news and disinformation sites about health-related issues. These sites leverage content from other disinformation networks, which quickly lead to Russian state media and connected sites. RT, formerly Russia Today, includes content on these conspiracies precisely to exploit the psychology of people seeking “alternative truth” — come for the 5G apocalypse, stay for explanations about how Assad isn’t using chemical weapons and “Russophobia” means Putin didn’t direct an attack on America in 2016!
We as Americans are inclined to believe that hard-core believers in conspiracies are a small percentage among us, hobbyists in UFO lore and energy crystals and the assassination of JFK — but the rapid normalization of the many arms of QAnon should be a warning to us that there are far more of our neighbors entrenched in these communities of toxic disinformation than we perhaps want to admit.
So when I found the small network of Idaho Facebook pages advocating against 5G was also sharing content from RT, I wasn’t surprised.
By February in Idaho, things had escalated. “[5G] is going to cripple, kill and destroy all living things,” said one valley resident at a city hall meeting. “This is a crime, an assault. It’s the same as taking a fork and stabbing someone. The attack is upon us.” Other residents called for calm, saying there was no evidence backing the claims being made. But the group had organized arguments and documentation, drawn from websites and social media, to support what they were saying, and gave carefully-prescribed recommendations to its supporters about how not to seem too extreme when arguing for caution in approaching 5G. This included the campaign about writing letters to the editor.
The pressure campaign had moderate success in getting a public hearing. Local elected officials and other leaders, used to dealing with zoning issues and regular local concerns, have less information, bandwidth/time, and resources to push back on the impact of these conspiracies. They want their constituents to feel heard, and often nod along with such fear-mongering if they don’t have the necessary information to allay these fears on complicated issues, before passing it up the food chain to the state level. In our local Idaho community, some officials were easily persuaded (also in the neighboring municipality) by the information presented and thought it would be worth looking into legal remedies to block 5G. Sun Valley later declined to pursue a moratorium on 5G rollout because of the federal regulations limiting such local actions — but not based on the merits or not of the anti-5G arguments.
By then, of course, Blaine County, Idaho had one of the fastest growing COVID-19 outbreaks in the country, and local officials were focused on that, and the crushing economic impact of a lockdown on a resort-driven economy. They probably have not noticed that the network of Facebook groups for “safe technology” and “health freedom”/anti-vaxxers in Idaho that also dabbled in anti-5G content are now also entrenched in the “conoravirus is caused by 5G” conspiracy which has sparked attacks on 5G towers in Europe and the UK. In some versions of this overlapping mega-conspiracy, Bill Gates is using 5G to cause COVID-19 while also making a COVID vaccine that will actually also give people the virus, or something (to be clear, none of this is true). The Bill Gates narrative has become the most popular version of corona-conspiracies because it has the super sexy aspect of having a multibillionaire mastermind who for once is not George Soros. The 5G-coronaconspiracy has been promoted by the usual array of bad information actors, including celebrities like John Cusack, pretend-celebrities like Diamond & Silk, and a panoply of QAnon accounts and grifters.
The race to the bottom continues.
“Hampering the West’s adoption of 5G networks, for example by hobbling democratic decision-making by inducing regulatory or legal battles about 5G’s adverse health effects,” may fit with the Kremlin’s agenda, but how should city council members in small Idaho towns know that the Kremlin targets anti-vaxxers with anti-5G information, and that both conspiracy-minded groups were sharing information about a COVID-19 conspiracy that can hamper local efforts to deal with a public health crisis?
Quite simply: they can’t know. Which is why local governments are soft targets for such groups. And why we need to bolster resolve against caving to conspiracies by calling them what they are and providing them with better information.
Multiply this out across America, and you see some of what is underlying the landscape of the protests against the idea of the “virus hoax.” And it’s not just America. It is Canada, Australia, the UK, and Europe — all have Bill Gates/5G/antivax/coronaconspiracy demonstrations of some variety. We are faced with a global pandemic that requires agility and innovation to prevent the worst humanitarian and economic impacts, and we are less able to do so as conspiracies seek to tell us that the virus is a hoax, that the virus is made worse by technologies that have nothing to do with it, and that the vaccines and research they can save us are actually the thing that are poisoning us. We need to recognize that some of our neighbors live in this information environment, and believe in it deeply, sometimes passively and sometimes quite actively. Our aunts or uncles and cousins and friends from high school may be sharing it online, and we have to decide how much energy we want to spend engaging. Since the beginning of the COVID lockdowns, I’ve spent countless hours helping friends and neighbors craft responses to family members who are posting crazy coronavirus conspiracies online.
This is not someone else’s problem — as some clever Idaho pranksters realized in taking a swipe at the anti-5G movement on April Fools’ Day. Toxic conspiracies are a problem that walks beside us, all of us, and that we must address before it cripples our democracy in an irreconcilable way. As conspiracists seek to use our democracy, in particular our local democracies, to amplify their voice, we must be vigilant in providing better information to lawmakers and officials.