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Why are we living in an age of conspiracy theories?

Less than a week after the University of Cambridge published the results of a five-year study which found that 60 percent of British people believe in conspiracy theories, a fresh scandal called #VicarGate was unfolding online. On a recent episode of the BBC’s current affairs programme Newsnight, a ‘vicar’ called Lynn Hayter can be seen declaring strong support for Brexit and Theresa May. Not long after the episode was aired it emerged that Hayter also worked as an actress under a different name, even appearing as an extra in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Naturally, it didn’t take long for theories to start circulating that this mysterious vicar wasn’t actually a vicar at all but was in fact being paid to come on the show and publicly defend May and her Brexit deal. Of course, the BBC denied all of this.

The BBC is hardly known for its impartiality so maybe Hayter was paid to be there, or maybe the acting work is legitimately just something she does on the side. Regardless, it’s still another example of the deep omnipresence of conspiracy theories in everyday life, albeit a more feasible example than what typically comes to mind. On the more extreme end of things exists a world of paranoia: from chemtrails used as evidence that chemicals are being pumped into the air to artificially engineer the environment or control population growth via biochemical warfare, to the earth being flat and the belief that 9/11 was a false flag attack orchestrated by Bush to garner public support for the invasion of Iraq. Ranging from straight-up ridiculous to genuinely plausible, conspiracy theories are everywhere and assume many different forms; however, what links all of them together is that they seem to largely exist as an online phenomenon fuelled by social media.

One explanation as to why social media has become the battleground for conspiracy theories can be understood as a response to the distrust and anxieties that come alongside living within capitalism. A defining feature of the current socio-political system is that the inequalities born out of it have resulted in a deeply-cemented hostility and lack of trust between ‘the people’ and ‘the Establishment’—with mainstream media seen as the status quo’s conniving mouth-piece. It’s for this reason that people turn to social media and fringe media platforms (InfoWars as an example) to inform their view of the world and the fires of conspiracy theories are stoked. Part of the internet’s appeal is its romantic promise of free, unbound discussion and interaction with like-minded people from all corners of the world. And, in the case of conspiracy theories, this allows for the rapid, far-reaching spread of alternative narratives and misinformation, free from the control of those ‘higher forces’ which so often assume the role of the Machiavellian villain within these theories.

To truly understand how and why conspiracy theories have become so prominent in the current conjuncture we must look at them as an inevitable logic of the digital age. In his recent book, New Dark Age, writer and visual artist James Bridle makes the case that the computation and networking of everyday life have created the space for these conspiracy theories to thrive as a way for us to try and make sense of the confusing and overstimulating world around us. As he puts it himself, “Paranoia in an age of network excess produces a feedback loop: the failure to comprehend a complex world leads to the demand for more and more information, which only further clouds our understanding.” For example, it may be far easier to think of a small secretive elite sat at a table controlling the world like evil ventriloquists—a common and often anti-Semitic trope in conspiracy theory circles—than to try and grasp the complexity and pervasiveness of global capitalism, which is a tangled mess of the varying geopolitical interests of nation states and the huge lobbying power of key industries; from arms and energy, to pharmaceutical and finance.

Where the danger truly lies in all of this is when these insecurities are capitalised on by conspiracy theorists peddling misinformation with a political agenda, whether it’s a red-faced Alex Jones frothing at the mouth calling Sandy Hook a hoax and survivors “crisis actors”, resulting in grieving parents being harassed, or Donald Trump tweeting that global warming is a conspiracy created by the Chinese to wage war on American trade, which acted as a precursor to his slashing of environmental protections.

It’s easy to point fun at some of the ridiculous theories out there but all too often we see their effects genuinely lived out around us. Navigating this often-overbearing, information-driven society we live in and trying to find truth in it is an increasingly difficult task but, while scepticism and being autonomous in our search for knowledge is perfectly healthy, we must be wary of letting contemporary thought be hijacked by those with divisive, polarising agendas.


Everything you need to know about 5G, and more

By Helena Kate Whittingham

On May 30, EE launched the U.K.’s next generation of internet interconnectivity 5th Generation (5G) with a secret gig by Stormzy in Tower Bridge, London. For the launch of a new internet, this was quite a bizarre and dystopian/utopian display—depending on which side you land on.

5G was first brought to my attention through conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who stated on a podcast with Joe Rogan that “5G causes massive mutation and cancer” and with that 5G quickly became the internet’s new favourite conspiracy—but what exactly is 5G and who exactly is saying it could harm us?

With 5G, we will be stepping fully into a new area of real-time response time online. We are moments away from being able to download HD movies in seconds, real-time communication in other languages and seamless lag-free gaming, but the benefits of 5G don’t stop there. When I say faster, they predict it as much as 1000 times faster than 4G. If our phones weren’t already an extension of our ‘selves’, this is taking it to the next step.

5G has been speculated to be beneficial for robotics such as driverless cars through to the healthcare industry for quickly transmitting images and expanding telemedicine. Additionally, it will expand on the notion of ‘smart homes’, meaning it will allow for devices to speak to one another by quickening data transmission.

Once considered science fiction, 5G will also work to rapidly increase AI production and expansion. 5G will give us access to more data at significantly faster speeds, resulting in devices having a better ability to understand their surroundingsin other words, 5G will give context to AI.

EE has not just ‘switched 5G on’, it has actually been tested in the U.K. since 2015. The timeline for wireless connectivity is as follows: 1G was the mobile technology of the early 1990s, 2G was the first system capable of carrying text messages between users, and internet on our mobiles as we know it today is 3G which launched in 2003, followed by 4G in 2012. Reportedly the 4G rollout was a disaster, and U.K. residents can still only access 4G networks 53 percent of the time, making the U.K. the worst place for 4G coverage in Europe.

Furthering the 5G timeline, in September 2015 the University of Surrey opened its 5G Innovation Centre in Basingstokea test bed for 5G. The hunger for better data is strong, so much so that the U.K. government spent £75 million on the Basingstoke site and predicted that £6.8 billion is reserved for 5G in total.

Elon Musk has also played a big part in the 5G rollout, with plans for his company SpaceX to produce a Starlink constellation of around 12,000 satellites with the ability to deliver high-speed internet to people at an affordable price. In early May, Musk shared on his Instagram that 60 satellites have just been launched to start this mission.

Which brings us to today, with many wifi companies worried 5G’s reported speed will kill them off completely. With all the impressive pros, come also many concerns with 5G. Over 200 scientists and physicians who have researched the biological effects of radiofrequency radiation have signed the 5G appeal, calling for a cap on the use of the new technology.

The main areas of concern are interference issues, surveillance, and health risks. 5G uses millimetre wave radio transmissions (28GHz frequencies), which has roughly a tenth of the range of standard 4G. Therefore, this is resulting in a lot more masts, satellites and antennas needed to account for the short travel distance and provide clear reception. Apparently, 5G even has trouble passing through trees.

As for surveillance issues, many people are speculating a super-connected world will also be super susceptible to cyber attacks. We have already experienced ransomware, malware, crypto-jacking, identity theft, and data breaches, which arguably will only get worse with 5G.

Finally, the development of this new technology has sparked fear that 5G radiation could have adverse health effects. In April 2019, Geneva, Switzerland and Brussels, Belgium blocked a 5G trial because of radiation laws.

There are multiple speculations online through #stop5G and #5Gremedies, with a Facebook group founded by John Kuhles, Dutch UFO researcher. Kuhles is predicting symptoms such as hot flashes, blurred vision, vertigo, irregular or skipped heartbeats, unexplained pains, ringing in one or both ears, extreme fatigue or extreme energy bursts, nausea and flu-like symptoms, also known as microwave sickness’. However, his website was criticised for fake news of 5G attacking and killings birds in the Netherlands alongside other propaganda.

In the U.S., Senator Patrick Colbeck said he believes that unregulated Wireless Radiation represents the number one environmental issue of our day—perhaps it’s important to note that Colbeck is also antivaccine. While in the U.K., conspiracy theorist David Icke expressed his concern that 5G millimetre wave technologies are used to scatter crowds and that it could potentially be used against us as a weapon.

So what now? 5G is here and has been here for a while. Later this year, it will launch across the busiest parts of the U.K. up until 2020. Overall, it is impossible to predict what new technologies can come out of this hyper-connectivity but what we can say is that the potential applications of 5G are numerous and exciting. Let’s just wait and see if we ever get ‘microwave sickness’.