Why fireworks conspiracy theories are everywhere right now.


A person stands in front of two jets of fireworks.

People fire fireworks near a June 19 celebration at the George Floyd Memorial in Minneapolis.

Stephen Maturen / Getty Images

If you live in a major US city. You’ve probably heard fireworks at night lately, or at least listened to people speaking about listening to fireworks. Last week, Jeff Friedrich of Slate reported that fireworks complaints have increased this year. In recent days, theories as to why have turned to a government conspiracy.

Like most speeches on the Internet, the origins of this theory are unclear, but several viral threads on Twitter and Instagram drive the same idea: In short, people report hearing more fireworks lately, an abnormal amount. The fireworks are supposedly “professional level”, making it impossible for the people who set them off to have bought them.

So who is behind all this and why? Looking for answers, I couldn’t help but think about this old meme:

Step one

Second step

????

Profit!

For this theory of fireworks, the first step seems to be “plant fireworks”, the second step is “lighting fireworks”, but the third step is still a question mark, as exactly what “benefit” would mean here ” Basically: What is the end of the game?

Author Robert Jones Jr. wrote that the fireworks are “part of a coordinated attack on black and brown communities by government forces; an attack aimed at disorienting and destabilizing the #BlackLivesMatter movement” through sleep deprivation and “desensitization” so that “when they start using their royal artillery on us we don’t know the difference.” To support his theory, Jones alleges that the police don’t show up when people call 311 or 911. What would make sense, because why would the government investigate itself?

In some cities, at least, it appears that authorities are making an effort to investigate who is behind the fireworks; Earlier this week, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a 42-person “task force” from the Sheriff’s Office to investigate who is selling illegal fireworks.

The theory advanced by Jones is quite popular, but there is no shortage of alternatives. Some believe that the police have planted these fireworks so that they have an excuse to appear in the brown and black communities; many say they have heard “reports” that “random people,” implying that they could be plainclothes police, have given citizens professional-grade fireworks, but there are still no direct reports from people saying a stranger He offered them free fireworks. Others believe it is just children venting, that it is antifa, or that the fireworks lobby is trying to offload stock; after all, many of the massive fireworks events have been canceled this summer.

“The government and the mainstream media are being shy or pretending to have no idea of ‚Äč‚Äčeverything, of course,” Jones wrote. As a member of the mainstream media, I swear that I am not being shy, I have no idea. Even after reading all I can about fireworks and how to evaluate theories about them, I still have no idea how to proceed.

The difficulty in evaluating these theories is that many of the key claims are infallible. Fireworks complaints have increased, but that doesn’t necessarily say anything about the frequency compared to other years; There is no way to definitely track the number of explosions per night in cities, as fireworks seem to be present in many parts of the city. In some cities, such as New York, there seems to be a strong consensus that they really They are More fireworks lately, but this is unlikely to be the case in all cities. The discussion of fireworks alone could be a primitive perception. The illusion of frequency is a common psychological phenomenon: once you hear about something, you are more likely to see it, or in the case of fireworks, you hear it everywhere. A person’s anecdote is not data, but I did notice an illusion of frequency for these fireworks theories; Once my editor asked if I had heard of them, I felt like I was seeing more mentions of fireworks. The mentions have likely been there the whole time, but I’ve scrolled down to previous news articles or posts about them on social media.

Also, so far, there is no evidence of what types of fireworks are being used. At least one former fireworks technician says he heard the booms and thinks they are professional-level, which could indicate that something strange is happening; Another pyrotechnician told the Washington Post that he believes the fireworks are “consumer grade” but still powerful. Nor is there a clear way to assess the validity of the claims about who is behind them. Since fireworks are illegal in many cities, people are unlikely to be frank about how they drove to another state to obtain them or illegally bought them from a dealer. And what the police do or say in response to these claims is unlikely to change their minds. After so many police departments have been caught murdering people, lying about assaulting protesters, and incorrectly claiming that Shake Shack employees poisoned officers’ shakes, a police department’s refusal to plant fireworks would be essentially meaningless. .

This cultural moment also especially facilitates the spread of conspiracy theories. In an interview in October, Eliot Borenstein, a New York University professor studying conspiracy theories in Russian politics and culture, said “social unrest, polarization, and a recognized history of state secrecy” they are the “natural habitat” of conspiracy theories. In settings where information, especially the media, is limited, he said, “People fill in the blanks with speculation.” Here in the United States, the media is not restricted; rather, everything Now it is the media, which can create confusion and create an environment where people do not feel that any information is reliable. If the government and mainstream media are lying to you, who do you trust other than the people on social media that encourage you to look beyond these “official” sources?

I don’t have the answers, and I generally approve of the authorities’ denial with healthy skepticism. But in this particular case, I wonder why the police, or the CIA, depending on the theory behind it, would plant fireworks as part of an incredibly devious plan to slowly reduce people’s sleep and sanity after almost a month of protests full of police. violence. As scientists say, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. In other words, the fact that the motives for these fireworks claims are unclear does not mean that the theories are unfounded. But until that is clear, stay skeptical, even of skeptics.

Future Tense is an association of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.