Your phone (still) isn't killing you—but Russia wants you to think it will

The Russian propaganda network RT America is targeting the U.S. with false claims that new 5G, or "fifth generation," phones could cause health problems ranging from cancer to autism—part of a disinformation campaign that one expert likens to "economic warfare," William Broad reports for the New York Times.

Cheat sheet series: Evidence-based medicine 101

What is RT America?

RT America is a Russian broadcasting network that airs its programming to American viewers via cable, satellite, and online streaming. The site also posts individual segments on YouTube and Facebook. According to a declassified U.S. intelligence report, YouTube videos from RT America averaged one million views a day, "the highest among news outlets.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence in the report described RT America as "the Kremlin's principal international propaganda outlet," and a 2016 study from the RAND Corporation described RT America as a "firehose of falsehood."

U.S. intelligence agencies have also identified RT America as playing a principal role in interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Broad writes, and last year, the national security division of the Department of Justice required RT America to register as a foreign agent.

The goal of RT America, according to experts, is to undermine the trust Americans have in their democratic leaders, institutions, and political life, Broad writes. To do that, RT America will often "amplif[y] voices of dissent, to sow discord and widen social divides," Broad writes.

The network has set its sights on public health topics, too, Broad reports. Namely, it's embarked on campaigns targeting vaccines, fracking, genetically modified organisms, and even cellphones.

What RT America is saying about your cellphone

In May 2018, RT America aired its first program claiming 5G cellphones have negative health effects. Since then, the network has increasingly claimed that 5G could cause brain cancer, infertility, autism, heart tumors, and Alzheimer's disease, Broad writes.

These claims are not backed by science, Broad writes. While all cellphones use radio signals to communicate, their radio waves are on the opposite end of the spectrum from more dangerous waves like X-rays and ultraviolet rays, which can damage DNA and cause cancer, Broad writes.

One false claim RT America has made is that 5G's higher frequencies make the technology more dangerous. "The higher the frequency, the more dangerous it is to living organisms," RT America claims.

However, research shows the opposite to be true, Broad writes. Higher frequencies penetrate human skin less, which means the exposure of the body's internal organs to the waves is lower, Broad writes.

According to Marvin Ziskin, a medical doctor and emeritus professor of radiology and medical physics at Temple University School of Medicine, "5G emissions, if anything, should be safer than previous generations."

Meanwhile, Russian government, scientific establishment back 5G in Russia

Given RT America's alarmist claims, it might come as a surprise that the Russian government and scientific establishment are proponents of 5G in Russia.

In fact, the scientific establishment within Russia has even claimed potential benefits of the high frequencies in 5G, saying they could heal wounds, improve the immune system, and treat cancer, Broad writes. And President Vladimir Putin spoke optimistically about the launch of 5G in Russia earlier this year.

So what's Russia up to?

According to Ryan Fox, COO of New Knowledge, a technology firm that tracks false information, Russia's attacks of 5G via RT America's programming is "economic warfare. Russia doesn't have a good 5G play, so it tries to undermine and discredit ours."

Molly McKew, head of Fianna Strategies, a consulting firm that seeks to counter Russian disinformation, said the Kremlin "would really enjoy getting democratic governments tied up in fights over 5G's environmental and health hazards" (Broad, New York Times, 5/12).

Cheat sheets: Evidence-based medicine 101

Been awhile since your last statistics class? It can be difficult to judge the quality of studies, the significance of data, or the importance of new findings when you don't know the basics.

Download our cheat sheets to get a quick, one-page refresher on some of the foundational components of evidence-based medicine.

Get all 6 Cheat Sheets


Next in the Daily Briefing

Leapfrog grades 2,619 hospitals 'A' to 'F.' How did yours fare?

Read now