Facebook said it removed an account that shared a video of an arson attack on a New Zealand cell tower last night.
But before the account was blocked, the clip was shared hundreds of times - and members of the local telco industry are on high alert that similar content could spur similar attacks.
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Last night police said they believed the footage related to an incident at a cell phone tower in Manurewa that was set alight in what appears to be another attack motivated by a Covid-19 conspiracy theory relating to 5G mobile networks.
NZ telco executives told the Herald they fear there could be more attacks, fuelled by misinformation swirling on social media.
The apparent Manurewa attack follows two incidents earlier this week: the Destruction of a cell tower under construction in Kaitaia and a blaze at the Baxter's Knob transmission tower in Porirua. The telco industry says there have been other attacks - although phone company bosses are loathe to share details for fear of sparking copycats - and a string of threats.
Members of the local tech industry sounded the alarm last night after the apparent Manurewa cell tower arson attack appeared on Facebook, titled "Somewhere in New Zealand F5GEE" [short for 'f**k 5G].
The clip begins with two people pulling up beside a cell tower. The driver says, "Okay, have fun, eh," as the passenger gets out of the vehicle and heads for a cell tower, which seems to be under construction or in the process of being upgraded.
The footage jumps to the passenger pouring some kind of fire accelerant around the base of the tower.
"Gonna send a message out," says the driver doing the filming.
The passenger runs back to the car after lighting the fire, but the driver says "That's not going to do it. That's too small? Where's the gas? Give me the gas" then runs over to pour more accelerant on the fire."
As he does so, the passenger says, "F**k you 5G, f**k you government, f**k you new world order." The driver then returns to the car and the pair drive off.
Liam Farr, chief technology officer with Auckland's Generator co-working space, flagged the video last night and made a violent video report to Facebook shortly before 9pm, but said he was frustrated by the social media platform's lack of an arson category.
His followers were outraged by the clip, but also thwarted in their attempts to report it. One tried to file a 105 report on the police website, but was stymied by the fact he couldn't say where or when the attack took place. Another, technology commentator, Paul Brislen, phoned the police (as did the Herald).
At 9.24pm, the Herald contacted a member of Facebook's regional PR team. At 10.20pm, the Facebook rep responded, saying: "The account that posted this video has been removed."
But although the person who appeared to be the first to post the clip to Facebook was blocked by the social network, the video had already spread like wildfire to other accounts.
Even by 8.45pm, it had been shared 405 times (and garnered 5500 views and counting, and 268 likes).
Last week, Geoff Thorn, head of Telecommunications Forum (TCF), which represents Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees, stopped short of blaming 5G protesters, but he did say: "We know that damage to mobile networks in other countries has been linked to groups opposed to 5G."
Privately, an executive at one of the mobile phone companies told the Herald he was convinced 5G protesters were to blame, and that the industry is working with police in a bid to prevent further attacks.
Covid-19 sparks surge in 5G conspiracy theories on Facebook
On April 2, The New York Times noted an explosion of posts on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube asserting false links between the Covid-19 outbreak and 5G mobile network upgrades around the world - amplified after celebrities like John Cusack and Woody Harrelson picked up on the bogus theories.
The Times noted 30 recent acts of cell tower arson and vandalism in the UK, apparently fueled by Covid-19 misinformation on social media.
It said on YouTube, the 10 most popular 5G coronavirus conspiracy videos posted in March were viewed over 5.8 million times. And that today, the Covid-19/5G conspiracy can be found on Facebook in more than 30 countries, including Switzerland, Uruguay and Japan.
Brislen has been long monitoring anti-5G groups on Facebook. The Covid-19 outbreak appears to have drawn more supporters to their fringe theories, he says.
A Facebook spokesman told the Herald last night: "We're taking aggressive steps to stop misinformation and harmful content from spreading on our platforms and connect people to accurate information from the World Health Organisation about coronavirus.
"Content encouraging attacks on 5G masts clearly violates our policies and we have removed a number of pages, groups and posts. Over the last week, under our existing policies against harmful misinformation, we have also begun removing false claims that 5G technology causes the symptoms of or contraction of Covid-19.
"We will continue to work closely with governments, other tech companies and third parties to remove harmful misinformation and promote official guidance from local health authorities.
Mobile crucial to outbreak comms
After the Baxter's Knob fire, which compromised coverage for some 15,000 of his company's customers, 2degrees executive Mat Bolland told the Herald, "We don't know what point people are trying to make at a time when mobile is more important than ever for keeping in touch."
Immediately after speaking to the Herald, Bolland had his hands full as 2degrees' Facebook page was plastered with threatening posts about 5G (despite the telco not having a 5G upgrade plan in place).
One read: "We are all getting f**ked over by the 5g towers you are installing outside primary schools. To all the electricians working for 2 degrees, you are all smart enough to know they are not good so don't bloody install them. Quit. Go on strike. Do what you have to do. Screw you 2degrees and all those who are installing these killing mahines [sic]."
After the Kaitaia incident, which irreparably damaged a 4G cell tower, Detective Senior Sergeant Mark Dalzell of Far North Police spoke of the harm to isolated communities.
"This was a tower that was being built to provide cellphone services and broadband internet to isolated rural communities. To have something like this damaged is an absolute backward step for our community," he said.
A spokeswoman for Spark said, "Since the end of March, there has been vandalism, including arson attempts at a few of our cell towers.
"We share the broader industry's outrage over acts of vandalism against critical infrastructure during a pandemic – a time when connectivity is more important than ever."
Vodafone NZ infrastructure director Tony Baird, said, "We're consistently seeing internet and phone use increase by 20-60 per cent during level 4 lockdown, as New Zealanders use telco networks to stay connected with friends and family. Cell sites are critical infrastructure in delivering our digital services, so it's infuriating there are arson threats and attempts at cell sites, which could severely impact people's ability to get online if successful."
• Covid-19 hits New Zealand's 5G auction, rollout
Tech commentator Bill Bennett said, the Manurewa attack was "Not an isolated incident, this will change the economics of rolling out 5G which was always going to look different post Covid-19."
Security costs could escalate. Coronavirus disruption has already seen MBIE quietly shelve the 5G auction originally scheduled for this month, and Vodafone and Spark put 5G upgrade work on hold in line with government lockdown guidelines.
5G myths debunked
The persistence of conspiracy theories around 5G even forced Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to address the topic during last Wednesday's Covid-19 press conference.
She said there was no link between 5G and the virus and urged anyone who was concerned to refer to her Chief Science Advisor's website.
A comprehensive "What is 5G?" explainer on that site notes the difference between harmful ionising radiation, such as that produced by x-rays, that has enough energy to harm cells with prolonged exposure and non-ionising radiation (such as the radio frequencies used for 5G transmission, 5G phones and Wi-Fi) that does not have enough energy to damage cells.
Those concerned about 5G often cite that radiofrequency radiation was classified as a "possible human carcinogen" by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (an arm of the United Nations' World Health Organisation) in 2011.
The Chief Science Adviser's 5G Q&A puts this into context, noting the "possible" category - unlike the IARC's "probable" list - includes phenomena where a link to cancer cannot be completely ruled out and "catches many commonly encountered things, such as pickles and dry cleaning, so represents a low-risk rating. To put this in perspective, even the classification above this, 'probable human carcinogens,' includes widely encountered activities including drinking very hot drinks and working night shifts".
Police said if anyone had information about the Manurewa incident they should call 105 or Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.