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5G–COVID misinformation reaches India, spooking telecom operators

India has enough misinformation to go around, but no 5G. But now we have 5G, sort of — the Department of Telecommunications last week allowed telecom operators to go ahead with trials for the technology. Telcos may be grumbling about how costly the spectrum is, but they’re now finding themselves facing another issue altogether: rumours that 5G causes COVID-19.

Until now, the country most widely associated with this rumor has been the United Kingdom, where field engineers have reportedly been attacked because of such rumours. Telecom operators are spooked — the Cellular Operators Association of India put out a press release on Friday branding as “FALSE” rumours, with the organisation’s Director General saying, “I appeal fellow citizens to beware of these fake messages. Together we can fight this menace of misinformation.”

Why misinformation spooks telcos

Telecom operators in India — along with their customers — have already suffered from falsehoods around telecom. From cancer to infertility, “radiation” from cell towers has been blamed of being behind all sorts of ills. This family of myths has been pervasive — the government has said that many building owners have refused to allow installation of telecom towers on their premises fearing such outcomes. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s sole blog post on its website is a debunking of what it calls the “bugbear” of “EMF radiation”.

This misinformation has been so widespread that it has made its way into mainstream cinema — the Rajinikanth starrer 2.0 even forged its villain in the fire of such a myth: the antagonist, played by Akshay Kumar, is an ornithologist who pays a steep price for fighting fictitious telecom operators whose cell tower radiation is cranked up so high that it disrupts many bird species’ magnetoreception, leading to them falling to their deaths.

The COAI was outraged by the plot point, and wrote to the government asking for the film’s clearances to be revoked. That didn’t translate to legal action, though, with the COAI stopping short of taking concrete steps to halt the film’s release. “We hope people will understand that it is fiction and not ask for removing cell phone towers,” the association’s then-Director General said. 5G technology may require a lot more cell towers, since a lot of the spectrum the technology relies on has limited range. If attitudes towards cell towers are negative, their rollout may be impacted.

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I cover the digital content ecosystem and telecom for MediaNama.

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