Groups on Facebook have been found calling for the harassment of 5G engineers and celebrating criminal damage to mobile phone masts – despite the social network claiming to be aggressively targeting disinformation.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has spread, infecting more than two million people worldwide, conspiracy theorists are falsely tying the outbreak to the deployment of 5G masts.
Many of these false theories are being promoted on Facebook, where groups have been celebrating suspected arson attacks against masts and sharing advice on how to damage them.
While the company has deleted some of the groups which have “5G” in their names, many groups which avoid this convention are evading its moderation efforts.
One group called What Goes Up Mast Come Down, which features a burning telecommunications mast as its header image, includes posts calling for attacks on engineers as well as the masts.
Sky News found a post encouraging people to run 5G workers “off the site” in order to shut it down.
Another post claimed “we are being murdered by the world government” – a common trope in conspiracy theories – and stated it is “time to fight or die”, potentially encouraging more violence.
Sky News also found multiple groups which provide misleading information to users claiming that viruses do not cause disease, alongside tools to search for 5G antennas in their local areas.
A Facebook spokesperson told Sky News: “Content encouraging attacks on 5G masts and telecom workers clearly violates our policies and we’re proactively taking action on Pages, Groups and posts to remove content that promotes this behaviour.
“Over the last week, under our existing policies against harmful misinformation, we have also begun removing false claims that 5G technology causes the symptoms of or contraction of COVID-19.
“We are taking aggressive steps to stop misinformation and harmful content from spreading on our platforms and connecting people to accurate information from the NHS about coronavirus.”
Despite these efforts – which the company says involve a global team of more than 35,000 people – false claims connecting 5G to the coronavirus pandemic remain widespread.
A report from Hope Not Hate flagged two groups, Stop 5G UK and Destroy 5G Save Our Children, which have since been taken down, although Facebook claimed it had already removed Stop 5G UK due to violations of its policy on the promotion of crime.
Senior figures in the telecommunications industry have warned that their engineers are being verbally and physically assaulted while continuing their work during the lockdown.
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After a mast providing network connectivity to the NHS Nightingale field hospital in Birmingham was attacked, Vodafone’s chief executive Nick Jeffrey criticised “the selfish actions” of “deluded conspiracy theorists” which could rob COVID-19 patients of a final video call to their families from their hospital beds.
While no deaths have yet resulted from the suspected arson attacks, firefighters were forced to evacuate properties in Dagenham, Essex, in the early hours of Tuesday morning after a mast was set ablaze.
Three men have been arrested on suspicion of arson.
Although communications regulator Ofcom does not currently cover social media, the government has proposed the watchdog as the new online harms regulator, enforcing a duty of care on online platforms.
In a letter to the digital, culture, media and sport committee published on Thursday, Ofcom said: “Clearly there is a role for social media platforms here in identifying and taking down inappropriate content.”
Sky News has shared the evidence it found with Facebook.