- A lot of people are unnerved right now, and for good reason. Thunderous explosions throughout the night are not making life any easier.
- The substantial increase in illegal fireworks being lit in inner cities, weeks before the Fourth of July, has spawned fantastical conspiracy theories about a massive government psy-op operation.
- These evidence-free theories have been spread by people and organizations with massive platforms who should know better.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Fireworks are making people lose their minds.
Unauthorized pyrotechnics going off in the days around the Fourth of July is common. But in cities across the country they are being lit far earlier than usual, for longer periods of time, and appear to be louder and brighter than is typical of amateur fireworks.
It’s led to conspiracy theories alleging a coordinated psychological operation designed to destabilize communities and prepare citizens for a coming government assault on the populace.
That police could engage in coordinated harassment of communities is indeed plausible. And such harassment reasonably breeds mistrust in government authorities. But it still doesn’t make a nationwide fireworks conspiracy plausible.
Relentless thunderous booms in the night — in an era of profound anxiety due to a pandemic and unprecedented social unrest — are reasonably unnerving. But going down evidence-free rabbit holes won’t help the credibility of the cause.
Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and chemtrails
Indulging conspiracy theories is as American as apple pie.
A 2016 study by Chapman University showed 54% of Americans believe the government is concealing what it knows about the 9/11 terror attacks. 61% percent of Americans in 2017 believed in some form of an untold conspiracy theory surrounding John F. Kennedy’s assassination, according to FiveThirtyEight. And while it’s down from a high of 30% in 1970, 6% of Americans still believe the 1969 moon landing was faked, according to Voice of America.
One thing that 9/11, the JFK assassination, and the moon landing all have in common is that they were all global paradigm-shifting events.
In a politically charged moment such as the present, highly implausible conspiracy theories about far less consequential incidents are being floated by some of the most prominent people in the country — the president, in particular.
In recent months, some of these acts of mass misinformation led to calls for Trump to be banned from social media platforms because of the societal damage that could be caused.
But Trump isn’t the only American with a prominent platform that’s susceptible to flirting with an unvetted conspiracy theory.
Last weekend, recently-minted Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times Magazine national correspondent Nikole Hannah-Jones tweeted “Read This” while sharing a viral thread by author Robert Jones Jr. which posited that large amounts of fireworks going off late at night in certain cities are “part of a coordinated attack on Black and Brown communities by government forces. Jones, Jr. added: “The government and the mainstream media are being coy or pretending to be clueless about it all, of course.”
To her credit, Hannah-Jones apologized, demonstrating she has more integrity than Trump — who has pretty much never admitted he was wrong about anything. Hannah-Jones on Monday told the National Review that urging her followers to “Read This” appeared as if it were an endorsement, and that it “was an irresponsible use of my platform and beneath my own standards, which is why I deleted my Tweet.”
In a moment when government and law enforcement are rightfully and belatedly being criticized for their lack of accountability and transparency, a journalist of Hannah-Jones’ stature propagating such theories contributes to the discreditation of journalism at a time when the public has never been more sympathetic to the need for massive reform.
Had Hannah-Jones issued a correction on her own Twitter feed, where she shared the conspiracy theory, the mea culpa would have been more effective than an emailed apology published on a conservative magazine’s website.
Regardless, there’s something about this particular conspiracy theory: that there’s a massive, nationwide, coordinated effort to flood inner cities with fireworks to, as Jones, Jr. put it, desensitize Black and brown people “to get us so used to the sounds of firecrackers and other fireworks that when they start using their real artillery on us we won’t know the difference. It’s meant to sound like a war zone because a war zone is what it’s about to become.”
This, if true, would be an act of war on the citizenry by agents of the state, with the seeming complicity of the news media, and would require the cooperation and silence of thousands of people.
Put simply, even if the government were as evil as this theory alleges, it would still be implausible that they could pull off such a complicated, fiendish psy-op without anyone finding out about it.
“Boompilling” is apparently a thing, according to BuzzFeed News’ Craig Silverman.
The term is a play on “red-pilling” — a “Matrix” reference and internet-speak for a political turn to the right. But in this case, it refers to people who are convinced that increased fireworks activity is the work of a master plan by a nefarious, all-reaching government.
“Occam’s Razor” is the principle which holds in a situation with multiple possible explanations, the simplest answer is also the likeliest.
For the boompilled, I propose “Grucci’s Razor” (named for the US’ first family of pyrotechnics): when an abnormal amount of fireworks are going off two weeks before the Fourth of July, evidence-based conclusions are the likeliest.
First, fireworks laws have been liberalized throughout the country. The increased availability means a lot of people have graduated from bottle rockets and Roman candles to much larger and more vibrant explosives that appear to be professional-grade, but are actually just of the more-impressive amateur variety.
Second, much of this country has been cooped up with absolutely nothing to do for months. So it’s not implausible to assume that what is normally just a few nights of unauthorized fireworks going off around July 4th is now spread over a few weeks.
Third, as one fireworks distributor told Business Insider’s Juliana Kaplan: “I’ll tell you where the money is coming from: the unemployment stimulus, the extra $600 they’re getting a week, 100%, because I’m swiping those red cards all day.”
We’re unnerved. We’ve lost confidence in institutions and are suspicious of authority. And at a time when sincere efforts at national conciliation would still be tough to succeed, Donald Trump is president.
Add sustained and irregular sessions of concussive explosions to the mix and you’ve got a pretty good brew to make most people unhinged.
Still, we need to maintain our grip, particularly those with prominent platforms, like Pulitzer Prize winners at the most prestigious news outlets in the English language. Especially since after Hannah-Jones apologized and deleted her tweet, the theories persist.
Hannah Hart — a YouTube star with nearly a million Twitter followers — on Tuesday shared screengrabs of what she called a “friendly neighborhood chat” that included theories that “government agencies” were driving around Los Angeles in SUVs and selling fireworks to “teens.”
Even CNN offered some credence to the theories in an article that read in part, “Why the fireworks are going off so frequently is anyone’s guess” and “Conspiracies abound over who’s responsible.”
We know that when Trump indulges in evidence-free conspiracy theories — even using the disingenuous “I’m just asking questions” posture — it’s dangerous and irresponsible.
Trump’s steadfast opponents, particularly decorated journalists, need to be better than that.