There’s A Good Reason Fireworks Conspiracy Theories Are So Popular Right Now

Sarah Midkiff

An annual summer staple in the United States — on par with popsicles and unfortunate sunburns — are fireworks. In the days leading up to the Fourth of July, fireworks can often be heard echoing throughout urban neighborhoods around the country. However, in the last few weeks, those echoes have become roars, with fireworks having become an unexpected all-night occurrence, spanning cities from New York to Los Angeles to Chicago, and starting at dusk and going into the early hours of the morning. In a time when tensions are running high, both because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and weeks of protests against systemic racism and police brutality, the proliferation of fireworks has left many people searching the Internet for answers.

In New York, the whistles, bangs, and booms of fireworks have been heard nightly for weeks now, with no signs of slowing down. According to Gothamist, from June 1 to June 19 this year, there have been 6,385 noise complaints about fireworks. During the same time period last year, there were just 27. However, New York is far from the only city experiencing this. A search on social media turns up thousands of results of people speculating the reason behind why it sounds like they now live next door to the Disney castle.

As the 311 noise complaints began rolling in, people on Twitter not only wondered why the sudden increase in fireworks was occurring, but also why police departments appeared to not be responding to them with any consistency. Of course, the lack of police involvement in such a minor issue isn’t really a bad thing: In a press conference on June 21, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams addressed the skyrocketing use of illegal fireworks in the city by urging New Yorkers to try to combat the issue without the help of law enforcement so as to avoid “heavy-handed policing.”

Adams suggested residents should “go talk to the young people or the people on your block who are using fireworks” rather than calling emergency or non-emergency numbers. “Stopping fireworks cannot turn into fireworks between the police and the community,” said Adams. 

One such example of what Adams was talking about was a heavy-handed response to the surge in illegal fireworks that occurred on June 15 in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn. According to Buzzfeed News, the NYPD responded to noise complaints with dozens of officers in riot gear. Police helicopters circled overhead as police blocked off the street and pointed flashlights into apartment windows. It is this type of unnecessary show of force that continues to cause tension between law enforcement and local communities, particularly after officers violently broke up peaceful protests against systemic racism and police brutality just weeks before. 

While calling the police is not the answer, people still want to know what can be done about the excessive fireworks — but mostly, they just want to find out from where they’re coming. So, naturally, conspiracy theories about the fireworks’ origins have abounded. And, why not? It’s not like anybody’s sleeping, so people’s minds are perhaps naturally going to strange places.

“Conspiracy theories that get a lot of traction, broadly, tend to be ones that help us explain big events or assign blame in a satisfying way, especially in situations where the real culprits might be mysterious, unknown, or hard to name precisely,” Anna Merlan, author of Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power told Refinery29.

On current popular conspiracy theory about the fireworks started cropping up after videos appeared showing New York police officers and firemen setting off fireworks. This led to people speculating on social media that the fireworks had become so ubiquitous as a way to justify why cities need enormous police department budgets. 

A second explanation trending online is that the fireworks are a form of psychological warfare used by police to keep residents sleep-deprived and on edge and therefore unable to effectively organize or protest. Both of these theories can, at least in part, be attributed to the fact that tensions between law enforcement and the people are at an all-time high.

“Conspiracy theories tend to flourish during times of social unrest, societal upheaval, times when nations are engaged in overarching debates about our values and belief systems,” says Merlan. “It’s totally unsurprising to see conspiracy theories right now, at a time when we’re dealing with the twin catalysts of the pandemic and a long-awaited national conversation about racial justice. I think it’s absolutely irresistible for people to try to tie the fireworks to the events of the last few months, particularly when so many people are observing a phenomenon — tons of high-quality fireworks going off constantly — that they feel sure is unusual or aberrant.”

People seem to be drawn to conspiracy theories when they provide an epistemically, existentially, or socially satisfying answer, and we are living during a perfect storm of heightened uncertainty, where there are no concrete answers to many of our desperate questions, and loud booms during the night are doing nothing to assuage our collective feelings of existential dread. In the case of the mysterious fireworks, then, conspiracy theories satisfy our need to believe that there is a higher, more organized power at play. Conspiracy theories offer recognizable patterns in a time of random chaos; they acknowledge that our existential needs have been threatened.

And as a way to compensate for our lack of agency and control, conspiracy theories offers the opportunity to believe that we have figured out something that otherwise can not be fully explained. Even if we do not like the answer, the fact that we have one proves to be more comforting in the chaos than not having one.

“Conspiracy theories are neither totally harmful nor totally helpful; most of them, for most people, fall into a middle ground,” Merlan explains. “They’re part of our natural tendency to question power structures and official narratives, and that can lead us to places that are both productive and irrational.”

So while the reason for the increase in fireworks is probably due to a bunch of different things — from fireworks-happy kids finally being out of school after having spent the spring cooped up inside to, well, fireworks-happy adults finally getting to enjoy the warm weather after having spent the spring cooped up inside to canceled Fourth of July celebrations leading to an abundance of available fireworks for sale — it’s understandable that people won’t be satisfied with just any old answer. They want something bigger to believe in. Is that really so much to ask?

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