If you live in a major U.S. city, chances are you’ve heard fireworks in the evenings lately—or, at the very least, you’ve heard people talking about hearing fireworks. Last week, Slate’s Jeff Friedrich reported that fireworks complaints are way up this year. Over the past few days, theories about why have taken a turn toward a government conspiracy.
Like most internet discourse, the origins of this theory are unclear, but several viral threads on Twitter and Instagram push the same idea: In short, people report hearing more fireworks lately—an abnormal amount. The fireworks are purportedly “professional-grade,” making it impossible that the people setting them off could’ve just purchased them.
So, who’s behind all this, and why? In searching for answers, I couldn’t help but think of this old meme:
For this fireworks theory, step one seems to be “plant fireworks,” step two is “set off fireworks,” but step three is still a question mark—as is what, exactly, “profit” would mean here. Basically: What’s the endgame?
Author Robert Jones Jr. wrote that the fireworks are “part of a coordinated attack on Black and Brown communities by government forces; an attack meant to disorient and destabilize the #BlackLivesMatter movement” through sleep deprivation and “densensitization” so that “when they start using their real artillery on us we won’t know the difference.” To support his theory, Jones alleges that police are not showing up when people call 311 or 911. Which would make sense, because why would the government investigate itself?
In some cities, at least, it seems like authorities are making some effort to investigate who’s behind the fireworks; earlier this week, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a “task force” of 42 people from the Sheriff’s Office to dig into who is selling illegal fireworks.
The theory Jones advances is quite popular, but there’s no shortage of alternatives. Some believe that police have planted these fireworks so that they’ll have an excuse to show up in brown and Black communities; many say they’ve heard “reports” that “random people”—the implication is that they could be plainclothes cops—have given citizens professional-grade fireworks, but there are not yet any direct reports from people saying a stranger offered them free fireworks. Others believe it’s just kids blowing off steam, that it’s antifa, or that the fireworks lobby is trying to offload stock—after all, many of the mass events that feature fireworks have been canceled this summer.
“The government and the mainstream media are being coy or pretending to be clueless about it all, of course,” Jones wrote. As a member of the mainstream media, I swear I am not being coy—I am genuinely clueless. Even after reading everything I can about the fireworks and how to evaluate the theories about them, I am still clueless about how to proceed.
The difficulty with evaluating these theories is that many of the key claims are unfalsifiable. Fireworks complaints are up, but that doesn’t necessarily say anything about frequency compared with other years; there’s no way to definitively track the number of explosions per night in cities, as the fireworks appear to be present in many parts of town. In some cities, like New York, there seems to be a strong consensus that there actually are more fireworks lately, but it’s unlikely to be the case in all cities. The discussion of fireworks alone could be priming perceptions. The frequency illusion is a common psychological phenomenon: Once you hear about something, you’re more likely to see it—or in the case of fireworks, hear it—everywhere. One person’s anecdote is not data, but I noticed a frequency illusion for these fireworks theories; once my editor asked if I’d heard about them, I felt like I was seeing more mentions of fireworks. It’s likely that the mentions had been there all along but I’d scrolled past news articles or posts about them on social media.
There is also, so far, no evidence of what types of fireworks are being used. At least one former fireworks technician says he’s heard the booms and thinks they’re professional-grade, which could indicate something weird going on; another pyrotechnician told the Washington Post she thinks the fireworks are “consumer grade” but still powerful. There’s also no clear way to assess the validity of claims about who’s behind them. Given that fireworks are illegal in many cities, it’s unlikely folks will be forthright about how they drove to another state to get them or purchased them illegally from a dealer. And what police do or say in response to these claims is unlikely to change minds. After so many police departments have been caught murdering people, lying about assaulting protesters, and incorrectly alleging that Shake Shack employees poisoned officers’ milkshakes, a police department’s denial of planting fireworks would be essentially meaningless.
This cultural moment also makes it especially easy for conspiracy theories to propagate. In an October interview, Eliot Borenstein, an NYU professor who studies conspiracy theories in Russian politics and culture, said that “social unrest, polarization, and a recognized history of state secrecy” are conspiracy theories’ “natural habitat.” In environments where information—especially media—is limited, he said that “people fill in the blank spots with speculation.” Here in the U.S., media is not restricted; rather, everything is now media, which can create confusion and leads to an environment in which people don’t feel that any information is reliable. If the government and the mainstream media are lying to you, then who is there to trust besides the people on social media encouraging you to look beyond these “official” sources?
I don’t have the answers, and I generally endorse approaching denial from authorities with a healthy skepticism. But in this particular case, I wonder why police—or the CIA, depending on whose theory you endorse—would plant fireworks as part of an incredibly circuitous plan to slowly chip away at people’s sleep and sanity after almost a month of protests filled with police violence. As scientists often say, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. In other words, just because the motives of these fireworks claims are unclear does not mean the theories are bunk. But until that becomes clear, stay skeptical—even of the skeptics.