On the wall of the shuttered Floods Bar at 140 Sundrive Road in Crumlin, only traces remain of purple graffiti that once expressed local opposition to a rumoured future 5G tower in the area.
Three Ireland wants to build a 19-metre telecommunications mast in the yard behind the bar, according to planning documents first filed in February with Dublin City Council.
The mast would provide “2G voice, 3G and 4G data service provision in the area”, the planning permission request says. There’s no mention of 5G.
And yet the rumour spread locally, including through a Facebook post by a local community group. Some say the problem was poor communication by Three Ireland, which created an impression there was something sneaky happening.
Whatever the cause in this case, local councillors and activists have been considering their role in fact-checking within communities and ensuring that misinformation does not go unchecked.
Not Following the Process?
Three Ireland originally applied for planning permission for the mast on 20 February. That was rejected though.
Council planners had visited the spot on 16 March and found that the company hadn’t posted a planning notice on the site where they intend to put the tower – as it has to do legally. Three Ireland didn’t respond to queries as to why they hadn’t put up a notice.
On 27 March, Three Ireland made a second planning application. There was a notice posted up at the site that time, but by Monday it was gone. Three Ireland hasn’t yet responded to queries about why there’s no notice on the site now.
Independents 4 Change Councillor Pat Dunne says that: “One of the things that annoyed people very much was they believed it was done very sneakily.”
The first application wasn’t on display when the council’s planning department inspected the premises in Crumlin, and the second notice was put up during lockdown at a time where people could not have meetings about it, he said.
“What I’ve explained to people is that the time for making observations has been frozen,” says Dunne.
Once lockdown is over, the community will still have the five-week period to submit objections, he says.
The mast is needed to improve connectivity in the local area, according to planning documents, which don’t mention 5G.
However, Three Ireland didn’t directly answer a query about whether the mast would be used as part of 5G infrastructure in the future.
Instead, a spokesperson for the company said the aim was to improve coverage in Crumlin, and that it had put in a planning application for a mast “at an existing telecommunications site at 140 Sundrive Road”.
“Three has followed all required planning protocol and has had engagement from members of the local community on this,” said the spokesperson, by email.
Earlier this month, Social Democrats Councillor Tara Deacy asked Dublin City Council Chief Executive Owen Keegan whether 5G masts were proposed at 140 Sundrive Road or another spot at the Kimmage crossroads.
In a written response, Keegan said: “There is no record of a current application for planning permission for a 5G mast at locations identified.”
Yet the rumour has spread around Crumlin and Kimmage. Dunne, the local independent councillor, says uncertainties around the planning application created the space for rumours to spread.
“The 5G conspiracists say that 5G is done in secrecy and I think that the sneaky way that this application was made fed into that,” says Dunne.
A representative from the Crumlin Community Clean-up Group said similar.
Three Ireland’s lack of engagement – and the lack of a first planning notice and the posting of the second during a lockdown – bred uncertainty within the area, they said.
“It does not portray a proactive attempt to engage with the community,” they said, by email.
A Facebook post by Crumlin Community Clean-up Group on 1 April had also spread the misinformation that the structure would be 5G.
“5G STRUCTURE TO BE BUILT ON SUNDRIVE ROAD (140 Sundrive Avenue area),” it reads.
The post continues: “Unfortunately not an April fool – owner has no issue erecting notice of planning application during lockdown – Please share, write to councillors and TDs and place an objection if you can afford it. THANKS!”
On Monday, a representative for the group acknowledged via email that there is no current evidence that the mast is to be used for 5G.
Tina Warren, a Crumlin resident and member of Crumlin Community Clean-Up Group, says there is community concern about the mast – 5G or otherwise.
“They’re an eyesore and people don’t want them in their gardens because literally it’s going to be their view,” she says. “So it’s the perception of not wanting it and of course they’re going to latch onto 5G.”
Warren says she doesn’t know where the rumour came from. But Three Ireland has a duty to keep people informed so such misinformation does not spread, she says.
“If you’re not informing people properly, they’re going to make these connections without looking at the real research,” Warren says.
A Broader Context
Siobhán O’Donoghue, a community activist and director of Uplift, a community-based campaigning platform, says she has noticed a massive increase in the spread of 5G misinformation.
“Since Covid-19, it’s just gone into absolute overdrive. It’s been absolutely huge,” she says.
It’s uncertainty about the effects of 5G, says O’Donoghue, along with the wider societal uncertainty surrounding Covid-19, that is creating the conditions for the misinformation surrounding 5G to spread.
O’Donoghue says that a fear of 5G has been fanned by far-right groups both here and abroad, as it offers opportunities for these groups to hold public meetings around the country and organise.
(Although, just to be clear, Crumlin Community Clean-Up Group is not a far-right organisation.)
Often, the narrative around the technology’s installation is that it’s carried out in secrecy, O’Donoghue says.
Around the European elections, some far-right actors “started using 5G as a way of stirring up community hype and reaction”, says O’Donoghue.
At the time, Uplift saw a proliferation of “Stop 5G” campaigns on its platform, she says.
So the group raised money for an investigation into whether the fifth-generation mobile technology is a major threat to human health, O’Donoghue says.
Experts consulted for the study did not feel there was enough evidence suggesting 5G was a significant threat to human health, it said. More research should be done by the government to facilitate a more public discussion on telecoms technology, it said.
It also noted that the void in effective information dispelling the idea that 5G is a health risk is being exploited by a far-right organisation in Ireland.
The more misinformation has moved from larger fora into smaller and sometimes private Facebook and WhatsApp groups, the harder it has become to track.
This has raised questions about the role that local councillors or other community figures may be able to play in combating it.
A representative from the Crumlin Community Clean-Up Group said, via email: “We acknowledge the mistake presented that the planned telecoms structure proposed on Sundrive as a 5G structure.”
“We do make an effort to be as accurate as we can with the information we post,” they said.
Current restrictions mean the group isn’t meeting regularly. “Perhaps this issue may have already been addressed if we were. We recognise the misinformation out there surrounding 5G and do not wish to be contributors of this.”
They also posted a clarification on their Facebook page on 18 April. The original Facebook post was shared 27 times – including by other local community pages.
“[T]he intention of our post was to make people aware of the large telecommunications mast being proposed in an unsuitable location less than a few meters away from residential properties,” says a representative from the group, in an unsigned email.
In a comment on the original post, Dunne, the local councillor, had said he was opposed to the mast, and told local residents of changes to the planning process during lockdown. He didn’t clarify that the mast was not for 5G.
“I would be very forthcoming in saying it’s not a 5G mast but at this moment in time there’s nothing definite to say that it isn’t,” says Dunne.
Fine Gael Councillor Anne Feeney says local councillors should be taking a more interventionist approach in tackling misinformation in local groups.
“I think we should be doing it once we gather our own facts,” says Feeney.
More than ever, as councillors’ traditional ways of keeping people informed are limited, communicating within online community groups is more important than ever, says Feeney.
O’Donoghue, of Uplift, says that addressing misinformation can be difficult as communities and community infrastructures such as residents’ associations and Facebook groups are quite disparate by nature.
O’Donoghue says the more analytical and more informed people are, the more equipped they are to tackle misinformation.
“It’s one of the best ways to inoculate our friendship groups and family groups from it,” she says.
Uplift is training users of their platform to spot misinformation, report it and respond appropriately, says O’Donoghue.
It’s an initiative they intend to formally launch later this week, she says.