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. US 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, Putin, on February 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 organise 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 in an interview. "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.
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RT's assaults on 5G technology are rising in number and stridency as the US wireless industry begins to erect 5G systems. In March, Verizon said its service will soon reach 30 cities.
RT America aired its first program assailing 5G's health effects last May, its only one in 2018. Already this year, it has run seven. The most recent, on April 14, reported that children exposed to signals from 5G cellphone towers would suffer cancer, nosebleeds and learning disabilities.
The network distributes its programming by cable, satellite and online streaming. It also posts individual stories on Facebook and YouTube. A declassified US 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 exchange.
Asked if Putin's promotion of 5G technology in Russia conflicted with the health alarms raised by RT America, she said the US 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 per cent 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 destabilise the West by undermining trust in democratic leaders, institutions and political life. To that end, the RT network amplifies voices of dissent, to sow discord and widen social divides. It gives the marginal a megaphone and traffics in false equivalence. Earlier campaigns took aim at fracking, vaccination and genetically modified organisms. One show called designer tomatoes "good-looking poison."
The network is now applying its playbook against 5G by selectively reporting the most sensational claims, and by giving a few marginal opponents of wireless technology a conspicuous new forum.
All cellphones use radio waves. RT America tends to refer to the signals as "radiations," seemingly associating them with the very strong rays at the far end of the electromagnetic spectrum, such as X-rays and ultraviolet rays, which in high doses can damage DNA and cause cancer.
But the radio waves used in cellphone communication lie at the opposite end of the spectrum, between radio broadcasting frequencies and the rainbow colors of visible light.
The frequencies employed in 5G are higher than those of past cellphones, allowing more information to be relayed more rapidly. Many other devices are expected to follow, including robots, drones and cars that send traffic information to one another.
Wireless high-speed communication could transform the news industry, sports, shopping, entertainment, transportation, health care, city management and many levels of government. In January, The New York Times announced a joint venture with Verizon to build a 5G journalism lab.
Over the years, plenty of careful science has scrutinised wireless technology for potential health risks. Virtually all the data contradict the dire alarms, according to public officials, including those at the World Health Organisation.
Opponents of 5G claim the technology's high frequencies will make the new phones and cell towers extraordinarily harmful. "The higher the frequency, the more dangerous it is to living organisms," a RT reporter told viewers recently.
The truth is exactly the opposite, scientists say. The higher the radio frequency, the less it penetrates human skin, lowering exposure of the body's internal organs, including the brain.
"5G emissions, if anything, should be safer than previous generations," said Dr. Marvin C. Ziskin, a medical doctor and emeritus professor of radiology and medical physics at the Temple University School of Medicine.
Health concerns were raised last year when a large federal study showed that 2G signals could produce brain cancer in male rats. But officials discounted a direct link to humans, saying people received smaller doses.
Nonetheless, 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 now calling for its ban.
RT America taps the ranks of existing anti-cellular activists to wage its 5G 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 realise 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.
Even so, private analysts see the 5G attacks as reaching perhaps millions of online viewers — terrifying some, infuriating others.
"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."
Written by: William J. Broad
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES