The Boom in Fireworks Conspiracy Theories
Paranoia about secret government plots thrives in times of uncertainty, when strange things happen, and when people are bored. This summer is a trifecta.
Updated at 4:48 p.m. ET on June 24, 2020.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been able to watch several hours of a free nightly fireworks show from my living-room window. They pop off over the rooftops of my Brooklyn neighborhood, where the usually busy sonic landscape was reduced to sirens during the peak months of New York’s coronavirus outbreak, then to helicopters and cheering during the longest nights of the area’s Black Lives Matter protests. It’s been a noisy summer, but these recent explosions are by far the loudest and most remarked-upon sounds yet. Last week, the New York City news site Gothamist reported a nearly 4,000 percent increase in fireworks complaints from the same period last year. In Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Boston, residents have reported an unusual uptick in fireworks. In Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Hartford, Connecticut: fireworks. In Greenville, South Carolina, and Columbus, Ohio: fireworks!
I like the fireworks, and have mostly been swooning over them. But on the internet, where anxiety is profitable and dramatic claims are shareable ones, a fireworks-truther community has taken shape within a matter of days. There are so many fireworks, for such long stretches of time, they must be coordinated. They look expensive. Could they be a government plot? Are the police punishing people for protesting? Signaling the coming of a civil war? That several cities have already announced special law-enforcement units to deal with the nuisance has only fueled the conspiracy theories.
The fireworks are impossible to ignore—booming and bright and bittersweet to look at, recalling less fraught summers, when they might have seemed harmless. They’re also disorienting. In a year in which Americans have watched crucial information slip and slide and mutate, it seems almost natural that something so unrelenting and unusual would take on surreal significance. Creating a conspiracy theory about fireworks is one way of trying to hold the world still and make sense of it.
Though some of the conspiracy theories about the fireworks imbue them with meaning by saying that they started at the same time as the protests over the police killing of George Floyd, Gothamist actually ran a story about “large scale firework displays late into the evening” on May 21, nearly a week before those protests began. Still, by the middle of June, everyone was talking about fireworks, and nobody knew why. “Too many ppl from major cities sayin this,” the rapper Wale tweeted on Saturday to his 6 million followers. “Something is afoot.”
The next day, the theories emerged. “My neighbors and I believe that this is part of a coordinated attack on Black and Brown communities by government forces,” the novelist Robert Jones Jr. tweeted to his modest Twitter following of about 58,000 people in a since-deleted thread. Jones hypothesized that the fireworks are meant to cause sleep deprivation, leading to tension and confusion in neighborhoods that have been protesting police brutality. They could also be a desensitization tactic, he wrote, to get the population used to incredibly loud noises. “It’s meant to sound like a war zone because a war zone is what it’s about to become,” he said. (The New York City Police Department declined to comment on Jones’s theory or its spread.) He accused the government of providing fireworks—which are illegal in New York—directly to kids and the mainstream media of “being coy” or “pretending to be clueless” about the scheme.
Parts of Jones’s theory were retweeted 16,000 times and a corresponding post has been shared 20,000 times on Facebook as of this writing—meaning it has easily crossed into the timelines of millions of people. (Through a publicist, Jones declined to comment.) The theory was also amplified by journalists. Though she quickly deleted the tweet, the New York Times Magazine editor Nikole Hannah-Jones retweeted the thread with the comment “Read this” on Sunday. That night, the freelance reporter P. E. Moskowitz tweeted about investigating “whether the extreme increase in fireworks is indeed a government program.”
But there are, of course, other explanations for the dramatic increase in early-summer fireworks.
Journalists in New York have talked with people setting off fireworks, who were happy to tell them where they had purchased their stockpiles (on road trips to states where they are legal). “I am watching kids set off fireworks on my street, right now,” the journalist Gita Jackson tweeted in response to speculation that police may be setting them off themselves. Slate has pointed out that firework retailers have recently started offering online sales and curbside pickup. After reading the conspiracy theories, I briefly downloaded Nextdoor to see what my neighbors were saying about the fireworks. One man, who said he had lived in South Brooklyn since 1970, wrote that before former Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s administration in the mid-1990s, firework season regularly started in April. He seemed unimpressed by the new uptick.
Randall Horvath, the owner of the wholesale retailer OCFireworks, told me that his company has seen about 60 percent more orders than usual. “Of those, buyers are spending on average 30 to 40 percent more than previous years,” he said. The most popular items this year have been artillery-shell fireworks. You can watch YouTube videos of them—they sound kind of like bombs.
Horvath suspects that amateur pyrotechnics have become popular because fireworks shows have been canceled, vacations are off, and there’s nothing to do. People have been stuck inside. They want to set things on fire. He also suggested that the companies that make fireworks for professional displays—such as the shows put on by cities or amusement parks—have turned to the consumer market. “These people have to make money,” he said.
Even in the face of benign explanations, the idea of a government conspiracy has proved compelling. To some degree, our current circumstances are likely to blame. In a 1994 paper, the sociologist Ted Goertzel found that belief in a conspiracy theory is strongly correlated with “anomia,” or a feeling that social order is collapsing and “the situation of the average person is getting worse.” He also found a correlation between conspiracy belief and positive responses to the question, “Thinking about the next 12 months, how likely do you think it is that you will lose your job or be laid off?”
The particularities of the internet are a factor too. Twitter is a great place for an idea like this to spread. Unlike Facebook or Instagram, where users have personalized feeds, posts that take off on Twitter can be seen by anybody. “Conspiracy theories on Twitter reach people they wouldn’t normally reach on other platforms,” Matt Schimkowitz, an editor at Know Your Meme, told me. Twitter is also a news platform, where people go to ask questions about real-time events. “It’s hard to separate conspiracy theories with legitimate calls for explanation,” Schimkowitz said.
Conspiracy theories typically “have a logic to them,” even if they’re not verifiable, says Mark Fenster, a professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law who specializes in government transparency. The fireworks-as-government-ploy theory certainly qualifies—it draws on the sense that police forces disproportionately target black communities, which is true. It calls on a history of the government sabotaging civil-rights movements, which has really happened. The FBI carried out “a grim and extensive campaign to sow distrust among activist groups” in the 1960s, the reporter Anna Merlan wrote in her 2019 book, Republic of Lies, though people’s suspicions were dismissed as paranoia when it was happening.
To be proved true, conspiracy theories have to be backed up by empirical evidence. But that evidence is not always available until long after speculation starts, Fenster told me: Evidence of the FBI’s targeting of Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t come out until years after his assassination. The FBI secretly flew spy planes over the Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 and Baltimore in 2015, but the agency didn’t admit its actions until October 2015, several months after the ACLU filed multiple freedom-of-information requests.*
Conspiracy theories bloom in times of uncertainty, when strange things happen, and when people are bored. This summer is a trifecta. Much of the appeal of the theories is that even when the explanations sound horrifying, they at least provide narrative sense. Within the logic of the fireworks conspiracy, for example, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s announcement of a dedicated fireworks task force that will conduct “sting operations” fits perfectly: The police that were supposedly providing or setting off fireworks have now been given latitude to squash their spread. Whether or not the fireworks were part of a secretive power grab, they’ve resulted in the granting of power.
The tweets about the fireworks also have a tone of generalized fear and anxiety that seems of a piece with the pandemic. We’ve been living inside, in silence, for months. These fireworks are being filmed out of windows, posted online with feverish requests that someone else confirm the mystifying sights and sounds. One Manhattan resident, Sarah Digby, tweeted a video on Sunday, writing, “These are professional-grade fireworks, not just some firecrackers. I’ve lived here 13 years and never seen anything like this.” When I spoke with her yesterday, she said she wasn’t sure how to explain what she saw. It could have been kids doing what kids do, or an uncommon surplus of supplies. It could have also been a “psychological-operations tactic,” but she hopes it wasn’t.
“I haven’t [gone outside] to talk to anyone and only know what I’ve seen from my apartment and read on Twitter,” she said. She shared one tiny piece of the story, hoping that someone could place it into a context that makes sense.
* This article previously misstated when and how the FBI's aerial surveillance of Ferguson and Baltimore was revealed.