Whom do you trust? That question is more important than ever. Conspiracy theories nearly destroyed democracy—or did they? The greatest threat to freedom is information. Is that Twitter account for real or is it an op designed to manipulate you? Are you sure that article you shared is legit? Nothing seems real, and no one exists offline.
Maybe the better question is, whom can you trust? It has become a truism that conspiracy theories are dangerous but repeating that sentiment does nothing to mitigate the popularity of these beliefs. People have stopped trusting in institutions, in power, in America.
There are dozens of explanations. People have too much freedom. Social networks are profit-driven and fearful of banning the most aggressive users because those people are also the most engaged. Russian trolls. If you look hard enough, you can find a reason that confirms your political/social/cultural/eschatological beliefs. But the best way of exploring why someone might believe in a conspiracy theory, to understand why (and who) people trust, is to dissect individual claims.
June 2, 2020. Philadelphia was in the first days of what would become nearly a month of protests addressing police brutality connected to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, in addition to a broader history of acts of racialized violence committed by the Philadelphia Police Department. In the days prior, protestors clashed with police and gangs of vigilantes throughout the city; the stench of tear-gas and burnt cops cars still lingered. The City of Philadelphia declared a state of emergency and instituted a 6 p.m. curfew. The only safe space left in the city was your home, online.
Appearing in the early hours of the morning, the hashtag #phillyexplosions identified Philadelphia-based Twitter accounts collectively observing mysterious, unidentifiable “booms” occurring throughout the city. The initial mentions appear to have started around 2 a.m. and then continued for the next few hours.
The hashtag gained further recognition when some of Twitter’s most popular accounts picked up on it and began offering their own takes.
Local news quickly identified what they believed to be the culprit: ATM bandits. 6 ABC Action News reported that the Philadelphia Police Department was investigating at least 10 ATM robberies, with the suspects alleged to have used M-device explosives to break into the machines. Twitter users in Philadelphia pushed back, alleging that the explosions were too consistent to have been ATM robberies. A theory began to emerge: the Philadelphia Police Department was responsible for creating the noises throughout the night, over a series of days, as a form of psychological torture, to drain protestors mentally and put them on edge so they might escalate the violence and necessitate stronger counter-measures.
The weapon? A long-range acoustic device (commonly shortened to LRAD). A Twitter user by the handle of @Asap_sweet_T (now suspended) tweeted out a picture of an LRAD connected to a military-grade vehicle and a screenshot caption from the Wikipedia page for Operation Wandering Soul, a Vietnam-era psychological operation conducted by the United States Army. Asap_sweet_T’s tweet subsequently went viral in spite of the user’s low follower count.
The hashtag #phillyexplosions became so prominent that local reporters had to cover it as its own separate subject. Max Marin, of Billy Penn, came to the conclusion that the noises were probably a combination of fireworks and atmospheric forces influencing how sound travels, while Michaela Winberg, also writing for Billy Penn, argued it was likely a consequence of Philadelphia loosening restrictions on fireworks. Of course, this didn’t stop the theory from spreading. It became linked to other similar rumors in New York City.
Writers for mainstream outlets like The Nation helped to further its reach by soliciting first-hand accounts and experiences from protestors. (As of January 2021, Moskowitz does not appear to have published any writing covering the explosions.)
And then, just as quickly, the story died, with reporting on the explosions (and, more importantly, tweeting about them) ceasing by the end of June. Although another story about ATM robberies appeared in October, scant references to the #phillyexplosions popped up from July onward, typically only as jokes referencing the hysteria.
So, what happened?
LRADS AND FIREWORKS OPS
Researchers have observed that stress is often a determining factor in the creation and acceptance of conspiracy theories. People will invent wild ideas as a way of coping with those parts of reality they cannot yet explain. Stories about police departments using LRADs predated events in Philadelphia, offering an attractive explanation for protestors under duress. Tweets began circulating on May 29th and 30th warning of the presence of LRADs in cities like Atlanta, Columbus, and Chicago.
The first reference in Philadelphia appears to have come from local musician Kississippi. On June 1, 2020, they sent out a series of tweets about the use of LRADs in the city, though the tweets do not appear to reference the nightly booms.
But the following morning others accounts began making connections. Asap_sweet_T’s viral tweet included an image of a police vehicle equipped with a sound cannon taken from a blog post from 2012, without attribution, creating the impression that the image was from the Philadelphia protest. (Those retweeting Asap_sweet_T also failed to investigate the account’s prior tweets for credibility as the user primarily retweeted anime porn.) Further lending credibility to the idea, real LRADs appeared at protests in Orlando, Portland, and Seattle in the same timeframe. However, the only documented examples of the presence of LRADs comes from videos taken during protests, not after, so there was no evidence to suggest police departments were engaging in psychological torture through the use of sonic weapons. This lack of evidence likely forced protestors in major cities to abandon the LRAD theory as June progressed and suggest that police departments were distributing fireworks as part of their operations.
Of course, misinformation does not exist in a vacuum. A number of news outlets tried to go beyond Marin’s and Winberg’s explanations for the noises, arguing for social conditions that might create these kinds of beliefs. Writing for The Atlantic, Kaitlyn Tiffany suggested they were the result of “times of uncertainty, when strange things happen, and when people are bored.” And Andrea Marks of Rolling Stone attributed it to a generalized anxiety. The general consensus among mainstream journalists was that the conspiracy theories surrounding fireworks were part of a larger cultural milieu tainted by conspiratorial thought. The irony here is that, much like the Twitter accounts spreading inaccurate information, these explanations miss an important detail.
On June 1, 2020, hundreds of Philadelphians marched to protest the death of George Floyd. Protestors snaked through Center City, moving from Race Street to the I-676 freeway, where a small group broke off and began moving up the freeway. Instead of working to de-escalate the situation, the Philadelphia Police Department trapped the group on an embankment and pelted them with dozens of canisters of tear-gas. Concurrent to the freeway protest, a gang of counter-protestors were marching through the Fishtown neighborhood wielding bats, threatening residents, and assaulting a reporter for local radio station WHYY. Police stood by and watched.
The events of June 1, 2020, provide important background on the climate of the city at the time the #phillyexplosions hashtag began trending and rumors of a psychological operation started circulating. It should come as no surprise that within hours of the Philadelphia Police Department deploying chemical weapons on protestors that a conspiracy theory began to emerge. Stress had some role in influencing what people were thinking and how they responded to the events of the day.
But in writing that, something is still missing. Protestors believed that the Philadelphia Police Department and the City of Philadelphia were conspiring against them, and though there exists no evidence of LRADs or fireworks ops, they were not wrong. A conspiracy did exist.
STATE VIOLENCE AND CONSPIRACY THEORIES
On June 2nd, the City and the PPD offered their account of what had happened: the protest had grown violent and police responded when protestors surrounded a state trooper’s vehicle. They called the use of tear-gas a “last resort.” A statement released by Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney further highlighted the PPD’s alleged reticence to use force:
“After issuing several warnings, they made the decision to deploy tear gas to encourage the crowd to disperse. While I regret that it came to that, and I am disturbed by the footage that I’ve seen, I support decisions made by the Department to resolve today’s activity.”
But within hours of the tear-gassing on the freeway, accounts had already begun to appear that offered a different version of the story. A drone video documented protestors moving peacefully up the freeway until police attacked and kettled the group up the embankment. There was no rhyme or reason to the tear-gassing. Videos taken at the protest showed police attacking fleeing protestors and pepper-spraying people who had already surrendered.
Coverage from The Philadelphia Inquirer and The New York Times over the ensuing weeks broke down the actions of police in greater detail, finding that the City and the PPD lied when they said the use of tear-gas was a last resort. The Inquirer went a step farther by covering another police assault using tear-gas, this time on residents of West Philadelphia, establishing a pattern of abuse. Accounts from victims of the violence in West Philadelphia included stories of the indiscriminate firing of tear-gas onto private property and the targeting of medical personnel with the use of rubber bullets.
Complicating matters, the City never took a firm position on police complicity with counter-protestors in Fishtown. Mayor Kenney expressed disappointment in officers, saying he was “deeply troubled,” but stopped short of offering any kind of remedy for their actions, which included standing for pictures with the gang. At a neighborhood meeting addressing the situation, the 26th Police Department’s captain tried to rebuff charges of wrongdoing by saying, “There was agitation on both sides from the get go.”
But once again the City and the PPD were lying. An investigation by Billy Penn confirmed suspicions of collusion when it found that the police were responsible for the attacks in Fishtown. Local residents stated officers at the 26th Precinct had warned them of rioting, with one officer allegedly saying, “They’re coming. There’s gonna be looting.” The event inspired a wider panic in the city among older residents, leading many to believe Antifa was going to invade as part of a “political plot.” A second vigilante group formed in South Philadelphia, to protect a Christopher Columbus statue, and police again stood by as the group assaulted protestors and journalists.
WHOM DO YOU TRUST?
Did the PPD conduct a psychological operation? The city’s police department did commit overt acts of violence against protestors, then attempted to cover it up. That same police department did agitate an armed gang against protestors, then stood back while the violence occurred and blamed protestors for initiating the violence. Through all of this, the City repeatedly tried to absolve the police of any wrongdoing. The City lied, releasing a statement affirming the PPD’s account, and only apologized when caught. Then, in December 2020, the City announced the results of an audit, titled “Philadelphia Police Department’s Response to Demonstrations and Civil Unrest.” The report distorts and omits major details to reach a conclusion that the problems were a result of inadequate training and manpower. It frames the events of June 2020 as a series of escalating mistakes instead of intentional malice.
The belief in LRADs and fireworks psyops may seem silly but in light of the actions of the City of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Police Department it is a rational response to irrational times. Not all conspiratorial beliefs are flights of fancy. They might suggest genuine expressions of real fears. Rumors of police sound cannons booming tired protestors might be a way of coping with police brutality—or they might exist as the consequence of genuine conspiracies.
Which begs the question: whom do you trust, social media accounts making wild claims or the cops standing on your neck?