The algorithm giveth, and the algorithm taketh the piss.
Back in January, when COVID-19 changed from something that happened to anonymous Chinese peeps in one of those cities that aren’t even Beijing, into “Holy fucking shit we’re all gonna die from Captain Trips”, the story drove a tsunami of traffic to online news sites, both real and not-entirely-connected-to-reality.
That was always going to happen, but the cloud cuckoo land of make-believe news is way more important to understanding why the world suddenly seems* to be overrun with mouth-breathing numpties and ridiculous pocket nazis angry that Bill Gates escaped the X-Files basement on Epstein Island and he’s coming to inject y’all with 5G blood control nanobots disguised as a vaccine.
*[Big asterisk on ‘seems’ because the world isn’t actually overrun by these asinine fuckmuppets, but they are the only people currently gathering on camera in sizeable groups anywhere in the world so it looks like there’s more of them].
The novel coronavirus didn’t just spread across the physical world in late January. It also infected and raced through the information sphere as a meme. And in this form, as an idea loaded with symbolic power, it coupled with another meme:
The idea, also loaded with symbolic power, that 5G the fifth generation of mobile phone networks, was a malign technology engineered to enslave the human race.
That’s nucking futs, you say?
But when 5G metaderp and the idea of the coronavirus made the beast with two backs on January 22 it took just a few hours before all the big social media platforms were infected and shedding their own viral loads of shareable crazy.
Why that date? Why 22 January?
Because that’s when Dr Kris Van Kerckhoven, a general practitioner from Putte, near Antwerp, told the Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws that, “5G is life-threatening” and it might be linked to coronavirus, because the city of Wuhan had installed a couple of 5G towers just before the virus emerged there.
Het Laatste Nieuws quickly removed the story when somebody pointed out they’d just published a steaming load of festy horse bollocks, but it was too late. Some of the 487 Facebook pages and groups already at war with 5G, including a whole bunch of suspicious newbies, grabbed the story and ran the fuck away with it. We’ll come back to them, but…
A few days later cellphone towers start catching fire all over Europe.
Some were 5G facilities and some weren’t…
…but all of them were attacked by excitable nimrods charging out of their Facebook basements and into the world of real things with IEDs and moonshine incendiaries.
Yeah. Good times.
The fear that ‘radiations’ from 5G towers were not just dangerous to human beings but part of Bill Gates’ secret lizard people plot was no more or less crazy than the same fears which had surrounded the rollout of 4G. The difference was timing and shenanigans; specifically Russian zhenaniganz.
In a way, the 5G conspiracy collective – less a working cartel of rational actors than the tangled fever dream of a tentacle porn fetishist – imitated the virus, sinking protein hooks into the ‘rona and converting it into a foaming-at-the-dick gigafactory for clickable bullshit.
And with bodies suddenly hitting the floor everywhere, plague-adjacent content was so irresistibly fucking clickable that of course the socials turned up the volume. I mean, who’s gonna leave all that bacon on the table? ￼
But, as Wired magazine pointed out when it all turned to shit, the algorithms “were smart enough to spot a viral trend but dumb enough not to notice the idiocy of its content.”
Turns out antivax meta-narratives, batshit conspiracy theories and Elon Musk’s brain farts can foam just as much dick on the net as serious dot point guides to washing your hands and keeping your distance, typeset in ever-dependable 12-point-Georgia on the front page of the New York Times.
Probably more, to be honest.
Like, heaps more.
And so here we are, three months later, endlessly screaming and dragged down to hell by celebrity chef Pete Evans and the darkest fantasies of the Karen hivemind.￼
So. What just happened?
Why are the steps in front of the Victorian State parliament getting stained with the same oily organic smears from the bottom of the human gene pool as the state house in Michigan?
Could any of the 5G nutters resisting the intolerable fascism of social distancing with a big group hug in front of London’s Scotland Yard perhaps just maybe buy Pete Evans’ fifteen thousand dollar bio-charger to protect themselves against the coronavirus instead?
(Spoiler alert: No. Chef’s Pete’s “hybrid subtle energy revitalisation platform” is just a very spendy disco lamp). ￼
And when will it end? Oh god when will it end?
Sorry. Not for a while.
Some of the unusual potency of the 5G conspiracy juice is simply bad luck. A bunch of nutters and grifters scattered their story seeds on fertile ground. The COVID-19 pandemic was not just a clear and present danger to the lives of millions of people, it destroyed livelihoods as well, collapsing whole industries, crashing economies and impoverishing many more people than it sickened or killed. But it still sickened and killed enough of us to make shutting down the world economy the first order of any response.
Added to the constant, low grade fear of infection, was the distress of not knowing whether that infection might prove fatal or trivial. The virus takes some in agony, and they die, gasping, alone. Others never even know that they had it.
In this way the virus creates feelings of powerlessness and uncertainty the same way it spawns dry coughs, fever and terrible hot takes by scratch-beardy concern trolls.
Just as human beings react poorly to bodily affliction, they don’t do well with psychic pathogens either. The explosion of viral content in January, and the sudden, massive gorging of that content betrayed an appetite not just for information, but for meaning.
They’re not the same thing.
Information is just raw data.
Like, say, the number of deaths on the island of Manhattan from March to April of 2020, compared to the average number for same period over the previous five years. (An increase of 11900, or 225%, in case you’re wondering, Joe).
Meaning is how we explain this psychotic shit to ourselves.
For instance: Eleven thousand nine hundred people died because Donald Trump is a rancid toffee apple of marginal sentience but vast criminal appetite, fed by a human centipede of bottom feeders who are no better at their jobs than he is at faking empathy.
Or: Eleven thousand nine hundred people died because Chinese special forces released THE SLANTY COVID from a weapons lab in Wuhan and spread it via yellow devil chemtrails that were turned on by 5G towers and they didn’t die anyway because the numbers were inflated by George Soros and Hillary Clinton.
The political scientist Murray Edelman described such beliefs as myths. Political myths. They are the stories we tell ourselves to explain great and terrible events, to place them with a narrative context that helps us to understand who are friends, who are enemies, and what must be done to survive.
Myths don’t have to be true to be powerful, but a kernel of truth will lend them power. They don’t have to be universally held to have real potency, but the wider and more receptive an audience they find, the more potent a myth will be in framing The Question.
Who are friends, who are enemies, and what must be done? Right. The Fuck. Now.
A global pandemic was the perfect growth medium for a hybrid myth fused from the genome scrapings of COVID-19 and 5G conspiracies.
As Jia Tolentino writes in The New Yorker:
We are not accustomed to destruction looking, at first, like emptiness. The coronavirus pandemic is disorienting in part because it defies our normal cause-and-effect shortcuts to understanding the world. The source of danger is invisible; the most effective solution involves willing paralysis; we won’t know the consequences of today’s actions until two weeks have passed. Everything circles a bewildering paradox: other people are both a threat and a lifeline. Physical connection could kill us, but civic connection is the only way to survive.
The weirdness of living through randomised mass death and the destruction of an empty world is an exact fit for Freud’s concept of ‘the Uncanny’, that moment in which we are shoved out of any settled sense of controlling of our fate. The 'Uncanny' is a province in the kingdom of fear, home to what is frightening - to what arouses dread and creeping horror.
The coronavirus crisis is experienced as a radical state of danger, not just because it poses a mortal threat, but to a large extent also because the threat is undefined in terms of its scope, duration, methods of attack and means of defense against it. This is the most menacing combination for us – an external danger whose shape is not clearly delineated, which gives way to internal scenarios… (with) no solid boundaries, and no meaningful logic or language that we can hold on to. – Dr. Merav Roth head of psychotherapy at Tel Aviv University.
In the face of mortal danger and free-floating angst, a thesis to explain everything in simple terms can feel like redemption. Unlike a virus, or a diabolically cunning Soros plot, a mobile phone tower exists in the observable world. Probably not far from where you’re reading this right now. It is perceptible and tangible.
It is destructible.
Attacking it with firebombs or mean tweets forges a sense of agency.￼
Even so, the damaging psychological effects of a global pandemic, and the amplifying technology of social networks, aren’t enough to explain the sudden pervasiveness of this specific 5G/anti-vaxer conspiracy soup - its sudden and baffling ‘everywhereness’.
Like focaccia in 1991.
The explanation is that it’s not all that sudden, or even that pervasive, really.
Unlike focaccia in 1991.
5G conspiracy thinking arose naturally from 4G conspiracy thinking which grew organically from earlier fears of emerging technologies, probs going all the way back to homosapiens’ harnessing fire.
In the US, the 1918 Spanish Flu was blamed on German submarines. Twenty years earlier, the New York Herald worried that a Russian flu had traveled across the country on telegraph wires.￼ With 5G conspiracy psychosis, however, the natural human tendency to behave like dangerous idiots, met the reciprocal human tendency to act like complete cunts.
(See earlier ref. Evans, Peter.)
Long before the ‘rona ate our strategic toilet roll reserve, the success of a cheeky little disinformation campaign in the previous US presidential election encouraged state actors within the Russian Federation’s security apparatus, and some billionaire gangsters in what passes for Moscow’s private sector, to branch out into new and promising market segments of the West’s never-ending culture war.
One target of opportunity?
The fifth gen mobile phone networks just beginning to roll out around the world.
If anyonelike—oh, I dunno, Tony fucking Abbott—needed a lesson in why building high capacity data networks is so sexy fucking hot right now, COVID-19 has a Ted Talk you can listen to.
Unlike Tony Abbott, Vladimir Putin clicked on that link and the Russian telecom sector has rolling hard on 5G for a couple of years. Within the motherland, Russian media is massively on board for the big win.￼
Outside the Rodina, however, Putin’s boutique fake news bureaus Sputnik and RT run the opposite line, their dark Satanic content mills churning out endless streams of paranoid ass cheddar custom-engineered to slow the technology’s adaptation in the West by sowing fear and doubt among the dumb and dumberer.
There’s nothing especially Russian about this, btw.
In 2019 a University of Oxford report, The Global Disinformation Order, put the number of countries with at least one government agency taking part in a coordinated information warfare campaign at seventy, with major state-funded operations in China, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Myanmar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, United Arab Emirates, Venezuela, Vietnam, and the United States.
Australia gets a small mention for Tony Abbott’s bulk purchase of thousands of bogus Twitter followers.
<insert appropriately sad trombone here>
With 5G, Russian agencies and operators have two main objectives, one specific and one general. Specifically it would be really fucking awesome if peer competitors like the US, and their little friends such as Australia and the UK, went the full Abbott on 5G, delaying the construction of critical infrastructure, while Huawei gets a head start building out the future for the motherland. More generally, however, players gonna play and Putin just loves to fuck with us. 2016 taught him that playing with culture war and identity politics is a powerful force multiplier in the zero sum game of Fuck Absolutely All Those Guys, All The Fucking Time. ￼
Russia didn’t invent 5G conspiracies or the anti-vax movement.
But they exist, and they are an efficient transmission vector for delivering weaponised stupidity to millions of useful idiots in the US and Europe. The anti-vaxxers in particular hold out the prospect of an easy win by forfeit some time in the future.
Given the damage already done by COVID-19, ponder for a moment the epic hurting old Vlad could put on us by juicing the anti-vax movement they way some cunning supervillain totally appears to have done for 5G.
Early this year, for instance, ‘Stop 5G’ Facebook groups (as opposed to pages) exploded from from 0 to 50,000 followers. Six hundred Twitter accounts devoted to fighting the technology tripled their follower count to 1.1 million in just one week, while 20000 Instagram fans of burning down telephone poles simultaneously winked into being over a couple of days.
Ben Decker, lead author on Oxford’s The Global Disinformation Order remarks as drily as a James Bond martini, “This statistic serves as a significant flag for suspicious activity.”
Is it a biggie? Seriously, JB?
Look, no. But also yes.
Locally, the moveable 5G goat rodeo of sad, bleating protests by even sadder sub-Hanson covidiots should reassure us that if anything is even remotely fuckupable it will be duly upfucked by these guys. There’s not that many of them. They’re not on the IPA’s mailing list, yet. And the lavish number of co-morbidities hosted within their micro-demographic promises to remove them from the gene pool at a statistically significant rate.
On the other hand, contemplate a moment twelve or eighteen months from now when a vaccine becomes available, and thirty to forty percent of the population refuses an injection because of an ass-puckering scare campaign that builds off the lessons learned by every nut job, grifter and information warfare operator currently working the 5G scam.