I’m interested in how new technologies, especially digital ones, get embedded in society and in everyday life. 5G debates from around 2017 in the UK gave us a moment to examine this. We wanted to get as many of our Master’s students as possible involved in researching something which has an impact on their lives. My colleague, Jean-Christophe Plantin, and I involved students in our courses in conducting a large scale content analysis of press coverage of 5G in the broadsheet and tabloid press.
Do you think we can compare 4G (or anything that’s come before 5G) for good or for bad?
If you look at the history of technological innovation and the way it has been discussed in the media, but also in reports and in some of the academic literature, every new generation of technology gets hyped. The promise is often bigger or different from reality, or it takes a lot longer than initially expected for a new technology to become something which is on everybody’s minds.
People like to talk about internet time as if it is faster than anything we have ever experienced. When you think about the numbers of people who have become users of Facebook or of the internet since the mid 1990s, it has been very rapid, but what enabled that to happen? Technologists designed their networks and applications, but the standards needed for them to work and the policies allowing the marketplace to operate and to protect people’s privacy are taking a very much longer to work out.
In the report, you talk about how media coverage of 5G is often negative. Are you advocating for 5G coverage to be much more positive?
The report doesn’t argue that media coverage is entirely biased towards the negative. There were lots of positives in UK media coverage when it comes to new opportunities for citizens, but also for industry sectors. One of the things that 5G does by virtualising the communication network (making it much more software dependent), is to enable vertical industry sectors to provide services. So transport or health, or any sector, can begin to provide services without relying as much on the mobile service suppliers. In this sense, 5G has great potential, but it comes with risks. Should we allow the deployment of these services when we have not yet figured out how to manage and protect consumers’ and citizens’ data? We have not established very effective means of governing these developments, yet the discussion about limiting these developments until we do is muted or absent from the mainstream media.
5G is a next step in using artificial intelligence to ramp up collecting, processing, translating and applying data in ways that are less and less transparent. From the point of view of a citizen’s interest, there are all sorts of risks associated with this. One is linked to geopolitics and concerns about surveillance and security. 5G networks support lower latency (meaning there's less lag in the transmission of data). This means that new mobile services are claimed to be robust enough to support driverless cars without them running off the road or handling robotics operations at a distance. The challenge for us in our project was to take a balanced look at the pros and cons and to see how the media portrays these.
Do you think that 5G surveillance issues (and China’s role) has been overblown, or are these real concerns?
The potential for more monitoring and surveillance is a real problem with the build-out of the new 5G networks. But a fixation on China as the bad actor is overblown in the sense that it denies that western countries are also implicated in many of the same practices using data generated by networks. The idea that states are intent on getting illegal access to personal or person-identifying data only in China but not in western countries is a misnomer. So when the press portrays this as, ‘you can have Chinese 5G technology and bear all the risks of surveillance intrusions, or you can have safe western technology which doesn’t come with those risks’ – media coverage is misleading. It doesn’t pick up on the fact that similar practices are (or are at risk of) happening in the west.
How has the debate change since there’s a new president in the White House?
The Biden Administration is, as the press puts it, ‘still tough on China’. The rhetoric has toned down, but there haven’t been any moves to repeal legislation which designates 5G technology made in China as a threat to US, and indeed, western security. A US initiative called The Clean Network asks countries to sign a memorandum of understanding whereby they agree not to use any Huawei or other Chinese companies’ technologies in their 5G networks. This is positioned as a concern about security, but it is also driven by a US concern about the competitiveness of its 5G equipment manufacturers in the global market. We might see a pulling back from extreme claims about the risks of using Huawei technology in western 5G networks, but the US government will not stop promoting its domestic industry as part of its ‘build back better for America’ strategy.
Your report says that the media generally over-simplify the impact of 5G. How could they approach this topic in a more sophisticated way?
We show in our analysis (of 795 articles across UK broadsheets and tabloids), that the media are biased in their reporting of 5G issues; they overwhelmingly source spokespersons from (or affiliated with) the Conservative Party, and they rarely cite scientific experts or social scientists. Our argument is that if journalists sourced their stories from a more diverse set of actors including citizens and local authorities who have a stake in how 5G develops as well as social scientists, the public would have a better basis for understanding how 5G is impacting their urban (or rural) everyday lives. It’s the balance of coverage that matters. In many cases, tech innovation issues are reported in a highly politicised and polarised way. This makes it hard for media audiences to make sense of claims and counterclaims about the benefits and risks of 5G.
Do you think the media is partly responsible for 5G conspiracy theory to do with COVID-19?
Conspiracy theories around mobile technologies stretch back to 3G and even before. Concerns are linked to distrust in authoritative information. Today online media amplify mis- and dis-information. Our content analysis of 5G media coverage was done just before a ramping up of 5G-COVID conspiracy theories in 2020. But conspiracies are not single issue. 5G is a convenient flag for mistrust to be wrapped around health, religion, ethnicity, poverty and other issues. The responsibility of the traditional and online media and digital platforms is crucial here and there are big issues about who decides what is misleading or harmful information and when regulatory protections become censorship.
In the report you say ‘when the media focus on 5G technology, there’s little reference at times to culture and politics’. What does culture mean here?
We mean culture and politics in a broad sense. In media reporting, there is typically an assumption that communication technologies get embedded in everyone’s lives in much the same way. It is often implied that 5G users will be able to distinguish between 5G benefits like speed compared to what they have now or that there won’t be any affordability issues or disturbances to their urban environments (like digging up roads) and that there will be no step change in the likelihood that citizens will be monitored.
But people have different capacities to afford and make use of opportunities created by these networks as well as to protect themselves from harms. These and other factors will impact on how 5G is deployed and how it impacts on their lives. Market projections for the take-up of 5G are based on rarely disclosed assumptions about the strength of user demand. The media could do much more to interrogate industry and government claims. For instance, increasing concerns about being tracked and traced can lead to resistance. This could dampen enthusiasm for 5G, calling hyped-up 5G take-up projections into question.
Do you think that in 5 or 10 years, people will be having the same debates about mobile communication networks?
Some aspects will be similar because the commercial value of data is not going away any time soon. 5G involves growing use of artificial intelligence and machine learning to drive data processing and the monetisation of data. Future networks are likely to increase this. The issue is whether any consensus will emerge about how to govern these data uses. If these developments lead to deepening surveillance and extended capacities to discriminate unfairly amongst populations, debate about the consequences of tech innovation in this area for democracy, justice and fairness is likely to become more visible. Effective resistance could set the development of 5G and next generation networks on a different path.
My final question is whether you are optimistic about the role of the media in assessing the future of 5G?
Without adequate financing, the mainstream media are hard-pressed to critically evaluate moves to regulate uses of data that 5G and other digital applications enable. The constant drive towards faster, higher capacity, and more data-intensive networks happens mainly in the name of economic growth. This neglects public values like citizen privacy and this is inconsistent with a democratic social order. In that sense, I’m pessimistic. But I’m also optimistic. Citizens are capable of imagining alternative digital futures. History tells us that research-based policy activism can make a difference and the future of 5G could be reshaped to favour non-commercial values to a greater extent than today. The mainstream media’s role in fostering debate is weak because of its under-resourcing. But there are other spaces online and off where attention can be given to protecting public values.
To read Professor Robin Mansell and Dr Jean-Christophe Plantin’s report ‘Urban futures with 5G: British press reporting’ click here.