Parked atop the New York Times’ homepage right now — arguably one of the most influential positions in English-language media for any news story — is this story by William J. Broad about the framing by RT America of questions about the safety of 5G networking. Here’s a taste:
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 Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, has been doing its best to stoke the fears of American viewers, Mr. Putin, on Feb. 20, ordered the launch of Russian 5G networks in a tone evoking optimism rather than doom.
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.
This story is right in claiming that RT’s let’s-call-it-reporting vastly overstates any known concerns about 5G networking. It’s fair to assume that RT, owing to its Kremlin connection and eagerness to hype conspiracy theories, is happy to exploit scientific illiteracy as a way to stoke fear. Broad explains the loaded terminology used by the network, and cites good sources and knowledgeable individuals that see little health concern in the frequencies used by 5G.
However, this article also gets carried away in definitively stating the safety of 5G by too readily ascribing concerns to Russian propaganda.
An article published last month in Computer Weekly by a coalition of investigative journalists cited several scientific bodies and research institutes that have questions about the safety of 5G. They also quote David Carpenter who, as the Times explained, is an inaccurate alarmist. Susan Crawford, in a piece for Wired, pointed out that the FCC’s health testing standards are possibly outdated, being based on thirty year old German research; but, she also uses the “some say” weasel words to insinuate connections between the telecom industry and the German research institute. An article by Mark Hertsgaard and Mark Dowie, published by the Nation last year, explored the wireless industry’s successful lobbying efforts.
Meanwhile, the source for Broad’s claim that RT’s propaganda is being widely circulated is a Google search for
"RT America" "5G". Yeah, really. The way that sentence is phrased, you’d think that RT citations are appearing in loads of mainstream blogs. But, right now, that Google search is returning results for: this Times story; a bunch of stories and videos from RT America, of course; and several conspiracy websites. No mainstream blog or website that I can find has so far decided to use RT as a source for questions about 5G safety. On the contrary, bigger publications are asking scientists and industry representatives for their thoughts, as is responsible. The fact that RT’s stories are being circulated by idiots who would trust the network if it reported that the Pacific and Atlantic oceans had swapped places is not indicative of a successful propaganda campaign.
All of this is not to say that the Times’ story is wrong. Nor is it to establish false equivalency — there are not two equal sides here. There are thousands of scientists working around the world to try to answer the questions of whether wireless networking has any health risks, and whether 5G has any specific concerns. But the headline used by the Times — “Your 5G Phone Won’t Hurt You. But Russia Wants You to Think Otherwise.” — is another entry in a series of headlines that oversimplify a nuanced story, and the article itself and its push notification are too quick to blame questions about 5G’s safety on Russian propaganda.