In Guy de Maupassant’s 1887 story “The Horla,” an affluent bachelor begins to experience “mysterious influences” that leave him melancholic and paranoid. Trying to account for this, he remarks that “the air, the invisible air, is full of unknowable Forces, whose mysterious presence we have to endure!” After various attempts to explain his experiences, he happens upon a note in a scientific journal describing an “epidemic of madness” in Brazil, “which may be compared to that contagious madness which attacked the people of Europe in the Middle Ages … The frightened inhabitants are leaving their houses, deserting their villages, abandoning their land, saying that they are pursued, possessed, governed like human cattle by invisible, though tangible beings.” From this, he concludes not that he too has succumbed to the contagion but that the supposedly mad Brazilians are telling the truth: Their bodies, and his, have been taken over by an invisible race of “new beings” that attach themselves to human hosts, replicate, and spread.
Reports that merely debunk false claims fail to grasp why people are willing to trespass, damage property, and risk arrest as a consequence of their beliefs
Lately, Donald Trump has taken to calling Covid-19 the “invisible enemy,” a turn of phrase that echoes Maupassant’s story, as well as older demonological texts. Meanwhile, alongside the spread of the coronavirus, there has been an apparent epidemic of collective madness unfolding. In several countries, cell-phone towers have been vandalized and set alight by individuals who link the new illness to a different “invisible enemy”: 5G wireless technology. The first arson incident appears to have occurred in Birmingham, England, on April 2, and others quickly followed in other parts of the U.K. The trend has since spread to countries including Ireland and the Netherlands. The anti-5G movement has been under way for years but, until 2020, it mainly asserted cancer risks and the disputed notion of “electromagnetic hypersensitivity.” A smaller subset of anti-5G campaigners linked the technology to a shadowy agenda of surveillance and control.
The Covid crisis — surprisingly, given the lack of any obvious material connection — has given it new momentum. Two main theories have propelled the 5G-coronavirus synthesis. The first, promulgated by usual suspects like Alex Jones and celebrities like Woody Harrelson, claims that 5G radiation weakens the immune system, making the body more vulnerable to the virus. The second, more elaborate theory asserts, in the words of Twitter user @Jfkjuni0r, that “the Coronavirus is a coverup for weaponized 5G cellular technology.” He asserts that “5G infrastructure has the ability to emitt [sic] EMF radiation in a specific frequency and with enough power to cause symptoms that match those that are said to be caused by Covid-19.”
In mainstream media accounts of the attacks on cell towers, the circulation of 5G conspiracy theories is explicitly equated with the spread of the virus, as in one CNN report: “As the spread of the coronavirus is proving difficult to contain, so too is the misinformation surrounding it.” These reports typically take pains to discredit the conspiracy theories and note approvingly the measures taken by online platforms to halt their dissemination, such as YouTube’s ban on all videos claiming a 5G-COVID linkage and Facebook’s promise to remove similar content. Ironically, though, even news articles devoted to denying the connection end up reinscribing it to an extent, themselves joining the two things together and making readers aware of those who take the link seriously.
To read reports on this phenomenon is to observe the operations of an overtaxed epistemological immune system, hyperactivated since the 2016 “fake news” panic. The phrases that publications and platforms are deploying to trigger the public’s defenses against misinformation — such as “false,” “baseless,” “absurd,” “nonsense,” and “conspiracy theory”— are instead activating the conspiracy theorists’ epistemological immune response against those very publications and platforms, just as YouTube’s and Facebook’s actions can merely reinforce the idea that the truth is being suppressed. Twitter user @NoHighwayOption makes this clear: “If you try to connect the dots from Covid-19 … to 5G, the media will tell you it is a conspiracy theory. That should indicate you are on the right path.”
In “The Horla,” Maupassant’s protagonist struggles in isolation to make sense of his experience. His spiritual successors band together on Facebook and Reddit, drawing like him on eclectic sources and collaborating in the creation of a theory that will likely prove impervious to all attempts to refute it. Reports that merely try to debunk the conspiracy theorists’ claims on factual grounds fail to grasp why people are willing to trespass, damage property, and risk arrest as a consequence of their beliefs. They are willing to take these risks because they have arrived at a moral explanation of a catastrophe that media accounts tend to represent as no one’s fault in particular.
Mass panics around the “invisible enemy” of contagion are common across history and have usually generated narratives that claimed to explain the disaster’s origin and assign blame. During the Black Death, Jews and lepers were accused of poisoning wells and attacked, sometimes with arson. That similar attacks are carried out today, on the same continent and under similar circumstances but against technological installations, reveals continuity and rupture. In the past, the lay person’s impulse to trace invisible vectors of harm to their first causes usually led to human agents, often in league with supernatural forces — and this still happens. But today, as the 5G tower attacks reveal, the search may lead instead to complex machinery, capable of wireless transmissions whose effects are everywhere. This is because our conception of the invisible realm is now fundamentally technological. To imagine our own biology, we turn to technology.
In the 19th century, the kind of thinking about “invisible enemies” that fused older folk-religious traditions about airborne beings with newer scientific conceptions of the invisible world began to take shape. Over the centuries, what the narrator of “The Horla” calls the “coarse conceptions of primitive fear … gnomes, spirits, genii, fairies, and familiar spirits” had been banished by scientific knowledge. But this did not, in fact, disenchant the world. Instead, emergent technoscience introduced new unseen entities into the collective imagination, things like germs, gases, and electromagnetism. These have all played a role in the evolution of technological paranoia, in what Jeffrey Sconce, in The Technical Delusion, calls “the alliance of rational conduction and occult induction.” That is, seemingly neutral theories about hidden beings and invisible forces easily merged with quasi-demonological visions of control.
The case of James Tilly Matthews, who was confined in a London asylum in 1797, illustrates this convergence. Matthews imagined that he was being tormented by a machine, which he called an “Air Loom,” that was capable of inflicting harm and controlling the mind from a distance. He believed that it worked, as Mike Jay explains, “by weaving ‘airs,’ or gases, into a ‘warp of magnetic fluid,’ which was then directed at its victim.” Matthews drew indiscriminately on new theories of pneumatic chemistry, mesmerism, “animal electricity,” and electromagnetism, as well as miasma theory, the predecessor of the germ theory of disease. (The Air Loom, Matthews claimed, was fueled by “fetid effluvia,” “putrid human breath,” and “gaz from the anus of the horse.”)
Given its undemocratic character, it should not be surprising that some experience the 5G rollout as a traumatic imposition
All these strands of scientific and technical discovery concern the body’s permeability to entities that can influence us invisibly, establishing a gap between immediate perception and known reality. This shift had a political dimension too: An expert class appeared that could discern and manipulate the hidden domains implied by these theories. The invisible scientific entities and the expert class who seemed to control them appeared as different facets of the same threat to the autonomous individual, which had just begun to emerge as the site of political agency in Europe. (The Matthews case appeared in the wake of the French Revolution.) Both the new hidden agents and the technicians who claimed to understand and control them were disturbing imaginative presences, threatening to both common-sense reality and beliefs about individual autonomy.
Unscrupulous mesmerists and hypnotists begin to appear in 19th century popular fiction as well as in the delusions of psychotic patients. A doctor who dabbles in these techniques figures crucially in “The Horla”: his demonstration of hypnotic suggestion persuades the protagonist that mind control is a plausible hypothesis for his own condition. George du Maurier’s sensationally popular 1894 novel Trilby bequeathed the name of its mesmerist villain, Svengali, to our lexicon as a description for a master manipulator. Such literary figures served as analogues of the new class of scientific experts who not merely observe invisible forces but appear to align them against innocent victims.
Another spectacular version of this character can be found in the schizophrenic Daniel Paul Schreber’s Memoirs of my Nervous Illness, in the person of the psychiatrist Flechsig, a cosmic conspiracist able to wield control over humanity’s nerves. The construction of Bill Gates as a 5G criminal mastermind in current conspiracy theories fits into this lineage. In an era when the computer furnishes the dominant paradigm of control, Gates fits the part of overseer of the Matrix; his further association with medical research adds another dimension to this status.
The narrator of “The Horla” theorizes that his persecutor is not only a contagious replicant but also an expert mind controller capable of directing his thoughts and actions with mesmerist techniques. that is, it is at once a virus and a conduit for manipulative information. The mesmeric and infectious models have continued to exist side-by-side and sometimes to overlap. Consider two iconic works of Cold War paranoia: Invasion of the Body Snatchers, featuring contagious replicants, and The Manchurian Candidate, featuring mesmeric mind control. Videodrome, David Cronenberg’s 1983 cult classic, fuses a vision of televisual hypnosis with a related model of bodily invasion, imagining a broadcast signal that hijacks the mind but also transmits pathogenic agents that seed brain tumors.
In recent years, quasi-viral contagion and electromagnetism have come together in the narratives of targeted individuals (TIs), a mostly online subculture whose members believe they are the victims of “electronic harassment” and “psychotronic torture.” They report experiences familiar from schizophrenic symptomatology, such as hearing voices, perceiving thoughts as “broadcast” from the outside, and conspiratorial ideations, but usually resist medical treatment because they believe psychiatrists are part of the conspiracy to hide the truth of their real persecution. Cell-phone towers have long had a leading role in TIs’ theories, and they have been sounding alarms about 5G for several years. A 2017 TI ebook warned that “with the new 5G technology … it is possible to attack thousands of people, each second, from a single antenna. This is the real reason that the Deep State is promoting 5G technology.” In a Medium post from last year, TI advocate Karl Muller intoned that “5G is a military system targeting the entire population.”
Before 5G panic fused with coronavirus panic, TIs had already linked 5G to another contagion: the disputed condition called Morgellons disease, in which individuals believe they have mysterious fibers emerging from their skin. The Morgellons self-diagnosis community coalesced on online message boards and social media, much like the TI community, and as was probably inevitable, the two have often intersected. In 2017, for example, blogger Federico Vitale wrote that “the end game is to get this stuff (nano-fibers/Morgellons) growing inside all of us, and with the rollout of the new 5G network” to finalize the “Transhuman Control Matrix.” A video by YouTuber Vrillex from last year offers a unified theory of 5G, chemtrails, and Morgellons, maintaining that chemtrails seed nanobots that invade the body and make it receptive to 5G microwaves. Morgellons, Vrillex hypothesizes, occurs when the body rejects the nanobots.
It’s not surprising that such theories, which are always prone to integrate and synthesize, quickly incorporated Covid-19, an unseen entity that has nonetheless had a massive transformative impact. What such a fusion reveals is that all paranoia today tends toward techno-paranoia.
Technology currently stands as a sort of metaphorical source code for the processing and interpreting of reality. This has made techno-paranoia near universal. A recent Covid-related example underlines this point. The language of biology (“virus”) was once used to translate a technological reality (the “viral” spread of ideas in networks) into more familiar terms. Now the reverse occurs: We read, for instance, that the virus “is essentially malware attacking the source code of humanity,” or that “coronavirus spreads like memes.” Information technology now furnishes the basic language for articulating and explaining reality more broadly. Moreover, the two realms unfold in constant interaction. Virus-themed memes spread across the world at the speed of the virus, and hackers exploit the panic, using spam email to infect our devices with malware.
To torch a 5G tower is to take aim at an instantiation of the technologically and economically networked world we inhabit
There is a good reason, then, for the way conspiracy theories blur the line between metaphorical and literal viruses: Biological and technological existence are now irreversibly and inextricably intertwined. We may not have thousands of nanobots inside us, as some TIs claim, but it’s not the worst metaphor for the radical yet often imperceptible integration with complex machine systems that we have undergone over the past century.
The 5G arsonists are not entirely wrong, then, to assert a connection between wireless networks and the virus, even if they mischaracterize it. The implementation of 5G, which often involves equipment made by the Chinese telecom giant Huawei (a fact that has been made into a widely discussed political controversy), and the spread of Covid-19 both result in part from the same process: the decades-long integration of global technological and economic networks, with China as a hub. This process has unfolded in ways too abstract for nearly any individual to comprehend, overseen by largely unaccountable governmental and private bureaucracies. Given the undemocratic character of the economic and technological globalization of which the 5G rollout is the latest phase, it should not be surprising that some experience it as a traumatic imposition and lash out when it precipitates a crisis.
To torch a 5G tower is to take aim not just at a technology but at an instantiation of the technologically and economically networked world we inhabit. Those who do this may have a flawed model of this world, but their political diagnosis is not at all arbitrary. They have no effective control over the invisible forces the makers of this new world have unleashed. In the absence of technological democracy, they turn to technological demonology.
At the end of “The Horla,” the narrator burns his own house down, mistakenly believing he has trapped his unseen persecutor inside, and immolates his servants in the act. Upon realizing he has failed, he vows to kill himself. Today’s 5G tower arsonists repeat his futile gesture of attempting to fight a proliferating, invisible enemy that is everywhere but nowhere.