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Experts warn of new strains of misinformation as COVID-19 seeds conspiracy theories

“They might say look, we know that radio waves interfere with oxygen molecules, and people have difficulty breathing when they have the coronavirus. So you’ve got these bits and pieces that go together but the end result is there’s no scientific proof for these claims,” he said.

Conspiracy theories are also increasingly weaponised by foreign state actors and promoted by opportunistic scammers, with Dr Shanapinda saying the anxiety caused by them could make things tough for governments and telcos.

It may be a bit of a struggle to get community buy-in to continue with the rollout.

Dr Stanley Shanapinda

“It may be a bit of a struggle to get community buy-in to continue with the rollout,” he said.

There have been several instances abroad of anti-5G activists destroying telecommunications equipment, while Australian telcos have said they’re working with authorities to monitor potential attacks. Federal Communications Minister Paul Fletcher and Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy have both denounced 5G-coronavirus myths as baseless.

Chris Althaus, chief executive of industry body the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association, said the “fake news” about COVID-19 and 5G was not currently inhibiting the rollout and he hoped that would remain the case.

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“It would be a tragedy to be slowing down the rollout of this important technology on the basis of a conspiracy theory that is demonstrably false,” he said.

“We respect the community’s view and even if it’s a minority, there may be others in the community that hear that concern and need reassurance. The industry absolutely has a responsibility to provide the factual basis of information to reassure people.”

Meanwhile, a study commissioned by the Australia Institute’s Centre for Responsible Technology found that, in March, networks of Twitter bots created and disseminated misinformation framing COVID-19 as a Chinese bioweapon, generating an estimated five million impressions.

An Essential Research poll last month suggested that significant numbers of Australians had bought into the theory, with 39 per cent of respondents believing the virus was engineered and released from a lab. Additionally, 13 per cent thought the virus was not dangerous but being used to force people to vaccinate and 12 per cent believed the 5G network was used to spread the virus.

When asked if they believed Bill Gates had played a role in creating and spreading the virus (a theory being widely disseminated online via the viral video Plandemic), only 55 per cent said definitely not.

A protester in Sydney last weekend.

A protester in Sydney last weekend.Credit:AAP

Dr Katie Attwell, a political scientist and senior lecturer at The University of Western Australia whose key research area is mandatory vaccination policies, said the ideas are “not as nutty as it sounds” for a growing section of the community that no longer trusts the government and health authorities.

“They’ve debunked and dismantled all of our systems of authority and wisdom and knowledge, thinking that their own are lot better.”

Many of the COVID-19 theories have been picked up by anti-vaccination groups and demonstrations, and Dr Attwell said there was a danger that overexposure of the views would convert more people.

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“If this stuff goes from being really fringe, which it has been, to being much more mainstream then people will be susceptible to those views when they might not normally be,” she said.

Dr Attwell and her colleagues are about to start gathering data on Australian attitudes towards a potential vaccine.

“A lot will hinge on how governments manage communications around this vaccine when it’s ready,” she said.

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“It strikes me that, with COVID being as dangerous and bad as it is, government is probably going to want to go for the kind of local elimination possibility that a vaccine can give us. If you wanted to do that, then the idea that even a tenth of the population doesn’t want to vaccinate can be problematic.”

Displeasure with coronavirus containment measures, like lockdowns or vaccines, could potentially make people more likely to buy into conspiracies even if they’re don’t usually attend public demonstrations.

“You can attack the responsiveness and say ‘it’s not fair that we would lose our civil liberties’, or ‘it’s not fair that you’d make people vaccinate’, but why not chip away at the disease itself? To the extent that you actually believe that this whole thing has been cooked up deliberately, and nefariously,” Dr Attwell said.

Similarly, speaking about 5G, Dr Shanapinda said that general opposition to development could lead people to subscribe to conspiracy theories.

“Now it’s not just about ‘the towers are making our community look ugly’ and ‘our property values are going to go down’ … it’s that there’s a big health concern,” he said.

“There’s a health risk here, a risk to life, to babies or children. Then they know their concerns are going to be taken a lot more seriously than just property values going down.”

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