Telcos are blaming social media for a spate of attacks on cellphone towers.
In recent weeks 16 towers have been damaged, most of them in south Auckland. The escalation comes as conspiracy theorists link the rollout of the new 5G mobile phone and data network with the spread of COVID-19, a deadly disease caused by a coronavirus which first emerged in China late last year.
Scientists have rubbished the claims, and popular social media sites like YouTube and Facebook have tried to crack down on users spreading lies about both. Veteran conspiracy theorist David Icke, who has a huge worldwide following, had his accounts on both websites shut down recently after linking the two.
Geoff Thorn heads the New Zealand Telecommunications Forum, which represents industry titans like Chorus, Spark, Vodafone, Vector, 2degrees and Orcon. He said despite the sheer amount of credible information out there, it's tough to challenge the nonsense found online.
"It's very hard to get that information across when you're dealing with social media. We've got information on our website, the Prime Minister's chief science adviser has got some very good information, and we're relying on credible sources for the information that we provide."
When cell towers are damaged, it cuts communities off and potentially puts lives at risk, he told The AM Show on Monday.
"The biggest damage is to the community - it's people who can't work from home, can't learn from home, can't make emergency calls."
In an article published by The Spinoff on Monday, journalist and TV host David Farrier - who has in the past interviewed Icke - traced the 5G conspiracy theories back to 2016, well before the virus behind COVID-19 likely existed. The conspiracy theory was given a boost in 2018 when Icke and notorious fake news peddler Alex Jones - host of Infowars - began spreading lies about it.
Farrier did a commercial promoting 5G, and after receiving a torrent of abuse decided to join some anti-5G Facebook groups to keep an eye on the burgeoning movement.
"Back then, there was no talk of 5G carrying COVID-19, because the pandemic didn’t even exist," he wrote.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's daily press conferences on the latest COVID-19 cases in New Zealand, beginning in March, began attracting conspiracy theorists, who'd post anti-5G messages in the comments on Facebook livestreams.
"You could see the COVID-19 and 5G conspiracy theories merging in real time, simply by watching the daily briefings with Jacinda Ardern," wrote Farrier.
While many were joking, some appear to have taken it seriously. Thorn said people should listen to scientists, not social media.
"If people want information about 5G, the best thing they could do is go and look at the WHO website, and also the Prime Minister's Chief Science Adviser has got some really good information there about 5G - it's very easy to read, very comprehensive, and it provides quite a good explanation of what 5G is and the health effects."
The Chief Science Advisor's site says the "currently available scientific evidence makes it extremely unlikely that there will be any adverse effects on human or environmental health. There is no evidence whatsoever that coronavirus is in any way connected to 5G."
5G waves are shorter than those used for 4G and 3G, and scientists say this makes it harder for them to penetrate the skin - it's also harder for them to go through walls, which means more sites will be needed.
"5G networks will need more towers than 4G to achieve the same coverage," the advice says. "Although this will not generate enough intensity to create noticeable heating, there will still be international standards in place to limit overall exposure, and monitoring to double check that this doesn't happen.
"The standards are set with a large safety margin to ensure that the total exposure to radio waves is comfortably below safety thresholds for impacts from heating. NZ follows these international standards."
COVID-19 has hit many countries that don't even have 5G networks, such as Iran and Egypt. On the other hand, Lesotho is one of only a few African nations with 5G, yet was the last on the entire continent to record a confirmed case of COVID-19.
The telcos are considering beefing up security around cell towers and installing security cameras. Thorn said if anyone sees anything suspicious, they should call the police right away.