It is bad enough that nearly 218,000 people worldwide have lost their lives to the coronavirus; there is no reason why misinformation should be spread online threatening to add to that total. Bloomberg reports that U.K. lawmakers plan on grilling executives today from some of the world's biggest tech companies about their plans to combat COVID-19 conspiracy theories. Google, Twitter, Facebook, and other companies will be represented at the hearing which will discuss not only dangerous and unproven cures for COVID-19 that can kill people but also conspiracy theories about the source of the coronavirus outbreak.
TikTok is not attending the U.K. hearing despite its popularity
One social media star that won't be at the hearing is TikTok. During the current crisis, the short-form video app has been the most downloaded app in the world outside of China. And this month, several users of the platform posted videos falsely linking the spread of coronavirus to the construction of 5G cell towers in the U.K. and China. Earlier this month, we told you how actor Woody Harrelson, famous for his portrayal of the dim-witted "Woody" character on "Cheers," posted on his Instagram page a report from a report by Washington State University's Martin Pall. Professor Pall connected some dots by noting that Wuhan, the city in China that many consider the source of coronavirus, was China's first smart city. The number of 5G base stations in the city rose from 31 at the end of 2018 to 10,000 at the end of last year.
Harrelson admitted that he had not fully vetted Pall's report, but as this conspiracy theory spread, some people took matters into their own hands and tried to bring down and destroy 5G cell towers in the U.K. and China. TikTok users have done their part to spread the conspiracy theory. If you search for "5G," on TikTok, the first three results are 5G towers, 5G coronavirus, and 5G conspiracy. One image found on the app shows a 5G cell tower mast on fire with the words "5g gettin burned down" posted underneath the image. Some of the comments made could incite further violence and over 60 5G cell tower masts have been attacked or set on fire in the U.K. This conspiracy theory is also alive in other countries as well; one post from earlier this week notes that some coronavirus hotspots in the U.S. are locations where 5G towers are present. And another TikTok clip shows a small-cell tower in Miami.
Unfortunately, those who believe in this conspiracy theory are not only destroying 5G towers, they also are attacking employees of telecommunications firms. For example, a BT Group engineer was recently stabbed and subsequently hospitalized. For its part, TikTok says that it does not allow conspiracy theories on the app that could cause harm to users or the public. Yet, a cursory look through the app reveals plenty of posts related to the 5G coronavirus theory. Michael Beckerman, head of U.S. policy for TikTok, told Bloomberg Television last week that TikTok has "focused a lot of resources" to battle misinformation about coronavirus.
Mark Andrejevic, professor at the School of Media, Film & Journalism at Melbourne's Monash University, says that today's hearing with U.K. lawmakers should definitely include TikTok. "It (the hearing) is missing an important platform, one that’s growing rapidly, "Andrejevi said. "It’s a platform to watch out for in the circulation of conspiracy theories and attention should be paid to that, not least because of its popularity among young people." Even though TikTok is popular, it hasn't been around as long as the tech firms that will be attending the hearing which could explain why it was not invited to attend.