Cell phone towers are being vandalized across Tennessee. A COVID-19 conspiracy theory may be to blame

By: - November 20, 2020 5:30 am
(Photo: Getty Images)

(Photo: Getty Images)

At least five cell phone towers in the Memphis area and another three operated by the state of Tennessee for emergency communications have been vandalized since December.

With no suspects identified or apprehended, state and local officials have their suspicions.

The vandalism, they believe, may be linked to COVID-19 conspiracy theories that 5G cellular technology is responsible for spreading through radio waves the pathogens that cause the virus — or (in a variation of the theory) that the towers’ transmissions suppress individuals’ immune systems, making them more susceptible to the virus.

“It is suspected that 5G conspiracy theories may have played a role because of similar activity in other states,” said Wes Mosley, a spokesman for the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security.

The conspiracy theory has taken root mostly outside the United States, prompting scores of torchings of cell phone towers in England and New Zealand. Outside Tennessee, however, there are few public reports of cell phone tower vandalism as a result of COVID-19 misinformation.

During a routine budget presentation to Gov. Bill Lee last week, Safety and Homeland Security Commissioner Jeff Long cited damages from the cell phone tower vandalism for running up the department’s expected maintenance budget for the next fiscal year to about $1.3 million.

The Tennessee Advanced Communications Network serviced by the department’s cell phone towers — which provides communication services for 68,000 public safety dispatch centers — is not covered under a warrantee, Mays said.

Repairing cell phone tower damages that those emergency centers rely on will require more taxpayer-funded dollars.

“There are some people who believe the 5G network is some way connected to the coronavirus pandemic and they have caused destruction to some of the tower sites of 5G,” Long told the governor.

“We’ve had several in the Memphis area and some of our others,” he said. “We’ve had three Tennessee patrol towers that have been damaged due to that. So the maintenance will help us cover any of that damage or anything we have from that.”

An ABC News investigation, published in May, detailed several attacks on cell phone towers around the country as a result of the COVID-19 conspiracy theory. The investigation said 14 cell towers in western Tennessee, between February and April, were “purposely turned off by way of disabling their electrical breakers.”

It’s unknown whether these 14 towers are part of the Tennessee’s Department of Safety and Homeland Security’s Tennessee Advanced Communications Network, which provides emergency communications. A spokesman asked to clarify details on the number of state-owned cell phone towers damaged by vandalism did not provide a response by Thursday evening.

Wes Moster, the department spokesman, said in a statement that “the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security received damage to the Tennessee Advanced Communications Network (TACN) towers earlier this year.

“However, the damage our department received isn’t exactly the same pattern of damage seen in Memphis. Right now, it isn’t clear if the damage to the cell phone towers in Memphis and the department’s towers are related. It is still under investigation. No arrests have been made.”

Memphis police have reported arson at five privately owned cell phone towers, as far back as December and through May.

In the earliest reports of vandalism — before COVID-19’s existence was widely known in the United States — it’s unknown why law enforcement officials are connecting the crimes to COVID-19 conspiracy theories.


Note: This story has been updated to correctly attribute statements made by Commissioner Jeff Long.



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Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee. She is a graduate of Columbia University in New York and the University of California at Berkeley School of Journalism. Wadhwani lives in Nashville with her partner and two children.