Conspiracy theorists who believe criminals or the US government are secretly microwaving them have embraced the same explanation as the cause of injuries reported by US diplomats in Cuba and China.
In 2016, US and Canadian diplomats in Havana began reporting nausea, deafness, vertigo, and other symptoms associated with reports of buzzing noises, called “attacks” by then–secretary of state Rex Tillerson. The events led to diplomatic withdrawals, expulsions, and a confrontation with Cuba. Theories have ranged from mass hysteria to ultrasound to explain the incidents, which continued this year in Cuba and in China.
In August, a New York Times report suggested that the diplomats were affected by microwaves, which at particular frequencies can trigger the sound of faint clicking in people’s ears. Many experts in microwaves questioned by BuzzFeed News felt the idea was implausible as an explanation for any injuries to diplomats.
But the report has galvanized people who have long believed that the US government has been targeting them with electromagnetic radiation.
“We feel the New York Times article has finally vindicated our cause which we have been trying make public for many years,” said Derrick Robinson, president of People Against Covert Torture and Surveillance International, in an email sent to BuzzFeed News. His Twentynine Palms, California–based advocacy group, which claims about 4,000 members convinced they are the objects of secret electronic attacks, is part of a growing movement. A worldwide association, Freedom for Targeted Individuals, which serves as an umbrella group for such organizations from Japan to Russia to the US, has gone so far as to put up dire warning billboards worldwide, in London, Warsaw, and Hong Kong, citing the events in Cuba as one reason.
“We, too, are in search of an investigation as to who and where are those controlling the covert weapons that are adversely affecting the health and well-being of many thousands of Americans daily,” Robinson said. In a mass email sent to reporters in September, Robinson blamed “covert operatives” for the electronic attacks.
Some psychologists are concerned that many people with these implausible beliefs may have mental health issues. In a 2016 study, David James and a colleague found that of 1,040 people who reported being stalked in a survey, the 128 who said they were stalked by a group or gang were all likely delusional. The diagnosis of delusion was made by two independent psychologists whose assessments were based on American Psychiatric Association guidance for false beliefs that persist despite “incontrovertible or obvious proofs to the contrary.”
The injuries reported by the US diplomats are perfect fodder for people prone to paranoia, a fixed, false belief that you are being harmed or persecuted. As much as 1.5% of the population may report such beliefs to some extent, based on past surveys.
News reports suggesting microwaves caused neurologic illnesses among US diplomats in Cuba “stirs them up and offers a form of vindication or ‘proof’ that their delusional ideas have been right all along,” said James, a forensic psychologist at the Fixated Threat Assessment Centre in London.
When asked what he thinks about psychologists who believe he may be paranoid, Robinson said that “people that are concerned about our mental health are simply unaware of the existence and widespread use of the microwave technologies that can remotely produce the effects that we are speaking of.”
Before the internet, people with delusions that they are being targeted for electronic harassment were less likely to band together, psychologist David LaPorte of the Indiana University of Pennsylvania told BuzzFeed News. After all, people have been worrying about microwaves at least since New Yorker writer Paul Brodeur wrote The Zapping of America: Microwaves, Their Deadly Risk and the Cover-Up in 1977, which claimed a government cover-up about risks from the kitchen appliances. (The theory was refuted as recently as 2016 in a lawsuit over the movie American Hustle, which referenced the book.)
But today, groups brought together by social media are buying billboards nationwide, calling “electronic assaults” a growing crime. (“We are we are changing the verbiage on the billboards by using the terms microwave attacks and microwave weapons interchangeably,” FFTI’s Ellen Free told BuzzFeed News, by email.) And sometimes, they have real impact. In 2015, for example, the city council in Richmond, California, passed a resolution that decried stalking by “space-based weaponry” in solidarity with these “targeted individuals.”
“I think that they are similar to the anti-vaccination crowd that spreads unnecessary fear,” LaPorte added. They might very well have nerve pain triggered by undiagnosed diabetes, or debilitating psychological ailments, he added.
Some psychologists who have studied people with delusions of electronic persecution declined to comment to BuzzFeed News on this latest claim of diplomats getting zapped, citing repeated threats they received after being quoted in earlier news reports about mental illness leading to beliefs in a microwave conspiracy.
In a JAMA study of 21 of the US diplomats released earlier this year, a wide variety of symptoms were reported, including deafness, blindness, vertigo, and difficulty concentrating. Three had “concussion-like” symptoms, according to the study, a diagnosis that has been widely criticized by neuroscientists.
Robinson said that roughly half of the people responding to his group’s regular surveys said they heard noises or voices similar to the reports from diplomats in Cuba, and reported similar cognitive symptoms. In a 2013 survey of about 275 group members, for example, about 30% said they have been implanted with a microchip, 40% were “unsure,” and 51% reported “synthetic telephony” symptoms, meaning voices in their head that they believe are implanted there by somebody from outside.
While psychological stress among US diplomats has been widely suggested as a better explanation for their injuries than mystery rays, LaPorte noted, such an outbreak does differ from the perceptions of people with feelings of continuous electronic persecution.
“The bottom line is they are just normal people who the government would have no interest in harassing in any way,” he said. “Paranoia has to find an outlet, and this is an unfortunate one.” ●