The Consequences of Russian Misinformation

The New York Times ran a great story Sunday on Russia’s propaganda machine: “Your 5G Phone Won’t Hurt You. But Russia Wants You to Think Otherwise.” The story, written by veteran science reporter Bill Broad, highlights the steady stream of misinformation Russia’s RT America broadcasts daily. 

While Putin has announced a 5G rollout in Russia, his US misinformation network has run seven stories this year alone claiming 5G causes cancer, heart disease, insomnia, autism, and a host of other health problems. Broad points out that the Russian agenda isn’t limited to fear-mongering over 5G as the network has run similarly bizarre stories on a range of subjects:

Moscow’s goal, experts say, is to destabilize the West by undermining trust in democratic leaders, institutions and political life. To that end, the RT network amplifies voices of dissent, to sow discord and widen social divides. It gives the marginal a megaphone and traffics in false equivalence. Earlier campaigns took aim at frackingvaccination and genetically modified organisms. One show called designer tomatoes“good-looking poison.”

The fact that 5G is now a target for these trust-erosion campaigns says a lot about how important it is. RT America’s complaint about 5G isn’t subtle; it claims “5G might kill you.”

RT America Pushes Back

RT wasted no time pushing back on the Times: the next day it ran a “pity me, the Gray Lady as smeared me!” segment. Anchor Rick Sanchez (fired by CNN for telling an interviewer US media is controlled by The Jews) claimed RTA is simply giving a platform to credible scientists who’ve been ignored by mainstream media.

Yet a recent RTA segment on 5G featured “technology safety educator” named Cecelia Ducette who has no scientific credentials; her LinkedIn profile says she jumped straight from technical writing into safety educating. Another segment featured documentary filmmaker Sabine El Gemayel, a communications major and world traveler with no special knowledge of science or health.

RTA has only interviewed credentialed scientists who are retired, such as Martin Pall, or specialized in unrelated fields, such as PCB researcher David Carpenter. The issues all of these people raise are more relevant to Wi-Fi and 3G cell phones than to 5G; if they were true we’d all be dead.

The Wall Street Journal Enters the Fray

Wall Street Journal columnist Holman Jenkins provided background on 5G conspiracies in his piece “Russia and the 5G Cancer Scare“, published on Tuesday. Jenkins cites the web site Fudzilla, a straight technology news site, on fake news attacks on 5G:

Conspiracy nuts are starting to target 5G development based on what Infowars and Russian backed fake news sites are telling them.

The stories of how dangerous 5G are include tall tales of people dying of heart attacks from the intense electromagnetic fields the technology is alleged to generate.

Similar to the anti-vax hysteria which resulted in kids catching medieval diseases in civilised parts of the world, the anti-5G crowd are spouting fake science.

The principal claim about 5G’s health risks is that 5G signals are stronger and more intense than those of prior generations of wireless technology. This is important because the only plausible avenue of harm from non-ionizing radiation is the heating of cell tissue by transmissions, the way the microwave oven works.

It’s all About Signal Strength

But the conspiracy theory signal strength claim is the exact opposite of the truth: 5G small cells transmit a signal roughly equivalent in power to a Wi-Fi access point (100 mW), but on average the cells will be farther away than Wi-Fi. 5G cells are going to be closer than 4G cells, but 4G cells transmit 5 to 20 watts.

The towers have always been less concerning to health researchers than handsets because of proximity; but the intensity of handset transmissions is a function of the distance they have to cover. With 5G, the path is much shorter than it is for 4G. Inches of handset distance make a big difference.

The greatest health risk from cell phones has nothing to do with radiation. According to the National Cancer Institute: “The most consistent health risk associated with cell phone use is distracted driving and vehicle accident.” So go hands free in your car if you don’t already.

How Influential is RT America?

Jenkins opines that nobody really cares about RT America, but we know some people do find conspiracy theories enticing; that’s why Infowars has an audience. But it’s certainly true that RT America is a pretty sad conspiracy monger compared to Alex Jones.

The anchor behind most of RTA’s 5G stories, Sanchez, doesn’t exactly give off a Walter Cronkite vibe; he’s more like a used car salesman in a cheap suit. His 5G expert, Michele Greenstein, seems to have been plucked directly out of high school yearbook staff.

Greenstein’s 5G reporting emphasizes the phony idea that towers are more hazardous than handsets in conventional mobile phones; she also claims that higher frequencies are more scary than lower ones. While false factual claims aren’t detectable by the mass audience, her tone and energy level, bordering on shrieking, don’t elicit confidence.

The Nature of the RT Audience

There’s an audience for this kind of thing. My tweet on the Bill Broad story prompted a cellular health crusader to attack me on Twitter with Russian 5G claims (see replies).

The crusader even shared Russian science from 2002 that she deemed relevant to 5G. The capital letters, broken English, and highlighting are darling.

While conspiracy nuts are small in number, they’re dedicated. Anti-vaxxers have managed to create a measles epidemics in some areas. And anti-nuclear campaigners have arguably had a powerful effect on atmospheric levels of CO2 by preventing the power system from weaning itself off of fossil fuels.

Now for the Consequences

A wacky fringe network runs wacky fringe stories for wacky fringe people. The trouble with all of this comes from the continual drip drip drip of fake news eroding confidence in our institutions. RTA’s response to the Times claims Verizon and the Times are conspiring to smear purveyors of truth. RTA reporter Dan Cohen put it on Twitter:

This is beyond odd. The Times took a rock-ribbed stand on net neutrality in direct opposition to Verizon and often promotes organic farming, a big priority of Putin’s Russia. The story here is that Russia realizes its kleptocracy can’t compete with the West in any technology market, so it attacks high tech in order to sell the low tech stuff that it can produce.

One of Russia’s biggest US admirers is President Trump, of course. His recent blacklisting of Huawei made RTA do a complete about face on 5G, with Sanchez and Greenstein declaring it the best and most important technology development ever.

This Road Leads to Oblivion

The only consistency between RTA’s 5G health coverage and its Huawei coverage is the Verizon conspiracy theory. In covering the Huawei deal, they emphasized FCC Chairman Pai’s ties to Verizon, without noting the detail that said ties consist of a two year job twenty years ago.

So the effect of this is to confuse the discussion about the Huawei ban. The blacklisting doesn’t only prevent American firms from buying from Huawei, it prevents US firms such as Qualcomm and Intel from selling components to them.

Huawei is still going to do well with 5G equipment in most of the world. If it can’t get chips from US companies, it will be forced to make its own. For most firms that would mean licensing patents from Qualcomm, but if it can’t do that it will have no choice but to use Qualcomm’s intellectual property without paying for it.

Crazy is as Crazy Does

When Huawei is hauled before an international court for IPR violation, the ban gives it a get-out-of-jail-free card. They’ll argue that they’d be happy to pay the normal fees, but the US government won’t let them.

Doesn’t anybody in the Administration think these things through?

Conspiracy nuts are drawn into an irrational world where normal behavior is to do irrational things. Conspiracy theories undermine confidence in institutions and conspiratorial reasoning also undermines institutions in their own right. We need to break out of this cycle by behaving more like grownups.