If you happen to wander into certain corners of Facebook and YouTube these days, you might hear that 5G makes your hair fall off, kills birds and causes cancer. More recently, you’ll also find out that it’s somehow connected to the global Covid-19 pandemic.

Misinformation like this has turned the next generation of mobile connectivity into fodder for conspiracy theories in the West, culminating in attacks on 5G masts in several cities in the UK at the beginning of April. 

But in China, the country with what’s said to be the largest 5G network in the world, those fears seem to be largely absent.

In fact, public perception of the technology is so different in China that 5G was recently turned into a viral marketing gimmick for McDonald’s. The fast-food chain reportedly drew a million viewers for the live-streamed launch of a “5G product” which, in the end, turned out to be a piece of chicken.

Filed under “disappointment.” (Picture: McDonald’s)

5G is a popular topic in Chinese media. It’s lauded as the technology that will help develop everything from the Internet of Things to driverless cars to artificial intelligence, according to Zhu Wei, professor of communications law at the China University of Political Science and Law.

This seems very different from what is happening in the rest of the world. Although the 5G conspiracy theories are being pushed by a small number of users, they’ve gained more traction than most. They’ve been picked up by some popular media outlets and in some cases are being promoted by celebrities -- despite the overwhelming scientific consensus against them.

Why did this happen? Experts and media pundits alike have blamed the rise of 5G conspiracy theorists on different factors, including existing (unfounded) fears about the effects of mobile networks and WiFi. Three organizations researching disinformation have recently found that the anti-5G sentiment may also be fueled by a coordinated campaign, according to Bloomberg.

The media has also played a role. Alarmist headlines from tabloids, along with outlets like Russian television network RT and US right-wing outlet Infowars, have been hyping up the alleged dangers of 5G. 

This cellphone tower in Beijing equipped with 5G gear probably doesn’t see many anti-5G protestors. (Picture: Nicolas Asfouri / AFP)

In China, on the other hand, state media doesn’t shy away from promoting the country’s success in deploying 5G: The country had 130,000 5G base stations as of the end of 2019. That’s because 5G is a big part of the Made in China 2025 initiative, the government’s plan to turn the country into a tech powerhouse, said Zhu.

“China hopes to lead the curve by overtaking 5G and leading the development of science and technology,” he says. China’s tech industry has changed rapidly over the past 20 years, earning the country a reputation for adopting new tech quickly.

5G’s popular image is also used by tech companies, with smartphone makers racing to put out more 5G phones. And sometimes it’s even used by the likes of McDonald’s to sell chicken.

Still, that doesn’t mean conspiracy theories are absent in China. Social networks inside the country have also been waging war against coronavirus-related fake news. And the Covid-19 spread has, of course, sparked its own set of conspiracy theories. But 5G doesn’t seem to be a part of the theories.

Why this is the case would require intensive research to unravel, according to Masato Kajimoto, Assistant Professor at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre of the University of Hong Kong. How fears like this get amplified depends on many factors, including the resourcefulness of relevant stakeholders and the technological knowledge of the public.

But historically, Kajimoto says we are not so different: We tend to embrace and fear new technology simultaneously.

“It's nothing new, and it looks like history repeats itself,” he says. “Cameras in the 19th century -- many people feared that they would lose their souls if being photographed.”