The cellphones known as 5G, or fifth generation, represent the vanguard of a wireless era rich in interconnected cars, factories and cities. Whichever nation dominates the new technology will gain a competitive edge for much of this century, according to many analysts. But a television network a few blocks from the White House has been stirring concerns about a hidden flaw.
“Just a small one,” a TV reporter told her viewers recently. “It might kill you.”
The Russian network RT America aired the segment, titled “A Dangerous ‘Experiment on Humanity,’” in covering what its guest experts call 5G’s dire health threats. U.S. intelligence agencies identified the network as a principal meddler in the 2016 presidential election. Now, it is linking 5G signals to brain cancer, infertility, autism, heart tumors and Alzheimer’s disease — claims that lack scientific support.
Yet even as RT America, the cat’s-paw of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has been doing its best to stoke the fears of American viewers, Putin, on Feb. 20, ordered the launch of Russian 5G networks in a tone evoking optimism rather than doom.
“We need to look forward,” he said, according to Tass, the Russian news agency. “The challenge for the upcoming years is to organize universal access to high-speed internet, to start operation of the fifth-generation communication systems.”
Analysts see RT’s attack on 5G as geopolitically bold: It targets a new world of interconnected, futuristic technologies that would reach into consumers’ homes, aid national security and spark innovative industries. Already, medical firms are linking up devices wirelessly to create new kinds of health treatments.
“It’s economic warfare,” Ryan Fox, chief operating officer of New Knowledge, a technology firm that tracks disinformation, said. “Russia doesn’t have a good 5G play, so it tries to undermine and discredit ours.”
5G is also a growing point of friction between Washington and Beijing, with each side lining up allies in what has become a major technology race. Moscow and Beijing are seen as possibly forming a 5G political bloc.
The Kremlin “would really enjoy getting democratic governments tied up in fights over 5G’s environmental and health hazards,” said Molly McKew, head of Fianna Strategies, a consulting firm in Washington, D.C., that seeks to counter Russian disinformation.
RT’s assaults on 5G technology are rising in number and stridency as the U.S. wireless industry begins to erect 5G systems. In March, Verizon said its service will soon reach 30 cities.
The network distributes its programming by cable, satellite and online streaming. It also posts individual stories on Facebook and YouTube. A declassified U.S. intelligence report, released in early 2017, said RT videos on YouTube have averaged 1 million views per day, “the highest among news outlets.”
Hundreds of blogs and websites appear to be picking up the network’s 5G alarms, seldom, if ever, noting the Russian origins. Analysts call it a treacherous fog.
Anna Belkina, RT’s head of communications in Moscow, defended the network’s coverage of 5G. “Unlike many other media, we show the breadth of debate,” she said in an email.
Asked if Putin’s promotion of 5G technology in Russia conflicted with the health alarms raised by RT America, she said the U.S. network focused on local 5G issues, not “the rollout in Russia.”
“Our American audience expects us to bring American concerns to the front, first and foremost,” Belkina said.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, in the 2017 report, described the network as “the Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet.” The report noted that RT’s most popular video on Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election campaign stated that 100% of the Clintons’ charity “Went to … Themselves.” The video was viewed more than 9 million times.
Later that year, the national security division of the Justice Department forced RT America, formerly Russia Today, to register as a foreign agent.
Moscow’s goal, experts say, is to destabilize the West by undermining trust in democratic leaders, institutions and political life. Earlier campaigns took aim at fracking, vaccination and genetically modified organisms.
RT has taken an active role in stirring up apprehension, casting the debut of 5G in biblical terms. The caption superimposed on a January show read, “5G Apocalypse.” The anchor reported that doctors, scientists and environmental groups were calling for its ban.
RT America taps the ranks of existing anti-cellular activists to wage its campaign. Some have railed for decades against cellphones, power lines and other everyday sources of electromagnetic waves. Much of their work appears not in reputable science journals but little-known reports, publications and self-published tracts, at times with copious notes of dubious significance. They tend to cite each other’s research.
It is unclear how many RT experts realize they are aiding a Russian network or that it acts as Putin’s mouthpiece. At times, RT simply mines existing videotape and print materials, editing them to reflect its perspective. And the intelligence report noted that some network staffers fail to disclose their RT affiliation when conducting interviews.
Private analysts see the 5G attacks as reaching perhaps millions of online viewers.
“RT successfully feeds the conspiracy-oriented ecosystem,” said John Kelly, chief executive of Graphika, a network analytics firm. “This effort is having a real impact. It’s bearing fruit.”