Apples and Oranges, and how substandard Daily Mail journalism triggered an Apple Airpod cancer frenzy
- Published on 30 April 2019
Here's a formula for misinformation, the results of which can be mass panic and huge loss of revenue: a group of experts agree that selected fruits might need to be checked for poison; a newspaper read by millions misinterprets the experts and reports that apples are poisonous.
During the month of March, this is indeed what happened when news stories spread virally across the internet to the effect that an Apple product—not a fruit but the celebrated Airpods wireless headphones—were a cancer risk. The story confused oranges and apples, and its route from hot air to information contagion has been tracked and flagged up by the indepedent online fact-checking site, Snopes (www.snopes.com) .
What, says Snopes, led to mainstream media and internet blogs happily picking up and printing the untrue story was a Daily Mail report on March 11 with the headline: "Are AirPods dangerous? 250 scientists sign petition warning against cancer from wireless tech including the trendy in-ear headphones.” This story, updated and corrected the following day—once the damage was done—had referred to an existing petition that was indeed signed by 250 scientists. But that petition was from back in 2015, and it never named AirPods (not on the market then) nor even wireless headphones.
In fact, the 250 scientists from 40 countries had called on the World Health Organisation (WHO) and United Nations to strengthen international guidelines in relation to electromagnetic fields (EMF), radiation "generated by electric and wireless devices", listing examples: “cellular and cordless phones and their base stations, Wi-Fi, broadcast antennas, smart meters, and baby monitors as well as electric devices and infra-structures used in the delivery of electricity that generate extremely-low frequency electromagnetic field (ELF EMF).”
No manufacturers were listed, i.e. no specific apples or oranges. Snopes quotes Joel Moskowitz, one of the scientists who signed the petition, as pointing out that “the 250 scientists said the current guidelines are inadequate, but the appeal doesn’t specify any products or manufacturers. That was misconstrued by The Daily Mail, and many other news sites picked it up.”
Where did The Mail get it? Snopes suggests it was perhaps from a blogging platform called Medium, which ran an article days earlier on March 7: “Are AirPods and Other Bluetooth Headphones Safe?” This piece, says Snopes, "quotes a researcher stating his concerns about AirPods safety, and although the story mentions the petition, it doesn’t claim the petition was focused on AirPods."
The bottom line is that the original 2015 petition signed by scientists does not claim that wireless technology causes cancer, nor cite any conclusive research as to whether it does or not.
Source photo: Apple