On the internet, there is often a fine line between a healthy skepticism of new technologies and blatant misinformation. The recent claim that the radio waves from 5G cellular communication towers are causing mass bird die-offs is a perfect example of just how thin that line can be—and how quickly falsehoods can spread across Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and even in the comments of Audubon magazine's stories.
The origin of this claim is as head-spinning as it is instructive, so let's untangle the knot: Does 5G really kill birds, and if not, why are so many people shouting about it online?
The first part of this saga is fairly straightforward: No, 5G—the fifth generation of our mobile cellular network—does not kill birds. “Radio wave emissions above 10 MHz from radio transmission antennas (including cell telephone towers) are not known to harm birds,” says Joe Kirschvink, a biophysicist at the California Institute of Technology who specializes in magnetics, in an email.
Krischvink isn’t just an expert on such matters—he was also involved in a related study that has proven prescient. In 2014, Kirschvink, at the same time as another group of biologists in Germany, found that low-level magnetic radiation, such as AM radio waves, could interfere with migratory birds' ability to orient themselves using the Earth's magnetic field. Although the researchers found that the birds were still able to compensate, they proposed restricting the use of the AM frequency band.
Aware of how this research and the resulting proposal might be interpreted by the general public, Kirschvink issued a strong disclaimer in his study: “Modern-day charlatans will undoubtedly seize on this study as an argument for banning the use of mobile phones, despite the different frequency bands involved,” he wrote.
Despite Kirschvink's clear warning, the claims that cellular radio waves kill birds spread nonetheless. The blame for that, however, doesn't fall on Kirschvink and his peers, but rather one “UFO researcher” posting on Facebook.
The "5G kills birds" phenomenon was started by John Kuhles, who according to the fact-checking site Snopes, “runs several anti-5G conspiracy websites and social media pages.” In a Facebook post last year, Kuhles claimed that a recent mass die-off of European Starlings in the Netherlands was caused by a 5G antenna test. Despite the fact that the local municipality never named a cause for the die-off, and the fact that the test Kuhles cites happened months before the die-off occurred, other Facebook pages and health blogs nonetheless picked up the post.
Things got weirder and even more obfuscated when Indian sci-fi blockbuster 2.0, currently the highest-budgeted Tamil-language film ever made, hit cinemas just days later. Apart from being a parable about how technology is ruining our lives, 2.0 specifically depicts electromagnetic radiation from cell towers wiping out bird populations, validating Kuhles' crackpot theory. “Following the release of ‘2.0’, which revolves around a plot depicting harmful effects of EMF radiation on birds, Indian news organisations, mostly Tamil media, published stories on the movie by adding the ‘birds died in The Netherlands due to 5G’ bit,” reported Indian fact-checking outlet Alt News.
Of course, it didn't stop there. Fans of 2.0 then found a 2012 YouTube video in which University of Southern California professor Travis Longcore discusses his study finding that communication towers kill 6.8 million birds annually. Dozens of comments on the video either cite the movie directly, or mention that 2.0's director, S. Shankar, “sent them here." Contrary to 2.0's plot, however, Longcore's research attributed these bird deaths to the disorienting lights used on communication towers, not the electromagnetic radiation they emit.
“People have observed for a very long time that nocturnally migrating birds are attracted to lights at night and it's exacerbated during periods of bad weather,” he told NPR in 2012. “It leaves them circling these towers that they encounter and running into either the guide wires on the towers, each other, ending up on the ground and taken by predators.”
Further fueling the 5G flames is a general anxiety around electromagnetic radiation that has been on the rise for the past two decades. Not unlike the claims that 5G kills birds, these fears are also unfounded, stemming from a misinterpretation of a single chart in a 2000 report on the potential health impacts of installing WiFi networks in Florida's Broward County Public Schools, the New York Times reported earlier this year.
Consulting with the school district, physicist Bill Curry cited a chart showing that brain tissue absorbs more radiation as radio frequency increases, thus concluding that WiFi signals, operating in the Ghz spectrum would be hazardous. He was wrong. According to the Times, as radio frequencies increase, our skin blocks them out, making radio waves safer as they increase in frequency (to a certain point). Unfortunately, no one caught Curry's error.
“Over the years, Dr. Curry’s warning spread far, resonating with educators, consumers and entire cities as the frequencies of cellphones, cell towers and wireless local networks rose,” the Times reports. “To no small degree, the blossoming anxiety over the professed health risks of 5G technology can be traced to a single scientist and a single chart.”
Taken together, it’s a strange and worrisome sequence of events that leads us to 5G being blamed for bird die-offs, but it’s also typical of how misinformation spreads on the internet: an urgent headline, backed by a series of half-truths and misinterpretations, validated by popular culture, and amplified and laundered repeatedly through social media posts.
Fortunately, unlike many other conspiracy theories and misinformation campaigns ricocheting around the web, this one doesn’t pose direct harm to anyone or anything. But how the 5G myth and others like it can still cause damage is by distracting people from the many real and urgent threats facing birds and the environment. After all, there are enough of those that we don’t need to make up any new ones.