On the internet, the line between legitimate skepticism of new technologies and outright falsehoods is frequently blurred. The emerging assertion that radio waves from 5G cellular communication towers are causing catastrophic bird extinctions is a good example of how fine that line may be—and how quickly misinformation can spread through social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
The source of this claim is as perplexing as it is illuminating, so let’s disentangle it: Does 5G actually harm birds? and if not, why are so many people yelling about it on the internet?
The first portion of this story is quite simple: No, 5G—our mobile cellular network’s fifth generation—doesn’t harm birds. In an email, Joe Kirschvink, a biophysicist at the California Institute of Technology who specializes in magnetics, notes that radio wave emissions over 10 MHz from radio transmission antennas (including mobile phone towers) are not known to affect birds.
Krischvink isn’t just an expert on the subject; he was also a participant in a similar study that turned out to be foresighted. Kirschvink discovered in 2014, along with a group of German scientists, that low-level magnetic radiation, such as AM radio waves, can interfere with migratory birds’ ability to orient themselves using the Earth’s magnetic field. Despite the fact that the birds were still able to adjust, the researchers suggested that the AM frequency band be restricted.
Kirschvink included a strong disclaimer in his study, aware of how the public might interpret this research and the resulting proposal: “Despite the diverse frequency bands involved, modern-day charlatans will definitely pounce on this study as a basis for outlawing the use of phones,” he wrote.
Despite Kirschvink’s stern warning, rumors that cellular radio waves harm birds have gained traction. However, it is not Kirschvink and his colleagues who are to fault for this, but rather a single “UFO researcher” who posted on Facebook.
The “5G kills birds” craze was founded by John Kuhles, who “runs multiple anti-5G conspiracy websites and social media pages,” according to fact-checking site Snopes. Kuhles alleged in a Facebook post last year that a 5G antenna test was to blame for a recent major die-off of European Starlings in the Netherlands. Despite the fact that the local government never declared a cause for the die-off, and the test Kuhles mentions occurred months before the die-off, the post was picked up by other Facebook groups and health websites.
Things grew even stranger and more muddled when the Indian sci-fi blockbuster 2.0, which is presently the most expensive Tamil-language film ever filmed, hit theaters just days later. Aside from being a metaphor about how technology is killing our lives, 2.0 displays cell tower electromagnetic radiation wiping out bird populations, proving Kuhles’ wild theory.
“On the heels of the release of ‘2.0,’ a film focused on a plot depicting the effects of Radiation emitted on birds, ‘Indian news organizations, mostly Tamil media, published stories on the movie by adding the ‘birds died in The Netherlands due to 5G’ bit,” according to Indian fact-checking outlet Alt News.
It didn’t end there, of course. Fans of 2.0 then discovered a 2012 YouTube video in which University of Southern California professor Travis Longcore outlines his research, which revealed that cellular towers kill 6.8 million birds every year.
Hundreds of comments on the video either reference the film or say that S. Shankar, the director of 2.0, “sent them here.” Longcore’s research, contrary to 2.0’s storyline, linked these bird deaths to the confusing lights employed on communication towers, rather than the electromagnetic radiation they generate.
He told NPR in 2012, “People have long known that active at night migrating birds are attracted to lights at night.” “It propels them around the towers they fly through, slamming into the towers’ control wires and each other before dropping on the ground and being devoured by carnivores.”
Anxiety about electromagnetic radiation, which has been on the rise for the previous two decades, is adding fuel to the 5G fire. According to the New York Times, these fears, such as that 5G kills birds, stem from a misunderstanding of a single figure in a 2000 research on the potential health effects of constructing WiFi networks in Florida’s Broward County Public Schools.
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Physicist Bill Curry, in consultation with the school district, referenced a graphic showing that brain tissue absorbs more radiation as the radio frequency increases, concluding that WiFi signals operating in the Ghz spectrum are dangerous. He was completely wrong. According to the New York Times, human skin shuts out radio frequencies as they increase in frequency, making radio waves safer (to a certain point). Curry’s blunder, unfortunately, went unnoticed.
The ranges of cellphones, cell towers, and local access networks have changed over time. Dr. Curry’s warning traveled far, resonating with educators, consumers, and entire cities,” the Times reports. To a significant part, the rising concern over 5G technology’s alleged health risks can be traced back to a single specialist and a single chart.
When taken as a whole, the chain of events that leads to 5G being blamed for bird deaths is strange and alarming, but it’s also typical of how misinformation spreads on the internet: an urgent headline, backed up by a series of half-truths and misinterpretations, validated by popular culture, and amplified and laundered repeatedly through social media posts.
Thankfully, unlike many other conspiracy theories and misinformation campaigns circulating the internet, this one does not threaten anyone or anything directly. However, the 5G myth and others like it can nonetheless harm birds and the environment by diverting attention away from the numerous genuine and pressing risks they face. After all, we already have enough of those. Needless to make anything any longer.
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