Conspiracy Theory

Noise, Conspiracy, and Narrative Convergence

The conspiratorial theories about the fireworks outbreaks in US cities tell us something about our collective inundation in another kind of noise.

“Gangstalking” is a central part of the shared worldview of “Targeted Individuals” (TIs), an online subculture that first emerged around the 1990s. TIs claim to be victims of systematic campaigns of harassment and surveillance that can take a variety of forms. I have written more extensively on TIs in the past. For my purposes here, suffice to say that they have promulgated narratives that exhibit many of the familiar elements of “paranoia,” within a self-reinforcing internet echo chamber.

“Gangstalking” is one of the most persistent elements of TIs’ accusations. The typical claim is that an organized “gang” is pursuing and persecuting them. While this can take an advanced technological form, gangstalkers’ alleged aggressions are often integrated into the innocent surface of daily life. For instance, one account claims that if you observe people doing certain things around you in public, that may be evidence they are part of an organized surveillance campaign against you: “stalkers will use signals . . . like the double blink to say that they understand. Squeezing the nose to say I know, or for pointing and directional signal, touching the eyes to indicate they are on watch or to watch the target, brushing the hair back three times, or covering the mouth or pretending to yawn.” Even the most trivial gestures people might make in public spaces, then, are central to gangstalking narratives, and can be seen as evidence of persecution.

Another account gives a sense of how ordinary everyday experiences can become infused with menace: “The Predatory Stalker will often ‘back into’ a parking space very close to where the target has parked, and will sit in his vehicle with the lights on and motor running.” All varieties of ambient urban sound are also frequently understood to be part of the organized stalking campaign. Vehicular noise often plays a central role in TIs’ accounts: they cite car alarms, horns, sirens, revving of engines, and slamming of car doors as gangstalking tactics.

Narratives about “noise harassment campaigns” are particularly revealing here, in that the entire drama of gangstalking surrounds the signal-to-noise ratio of everyday life. The simplest way to understand TIs’ interpretive pursuits is as an attempt to increase this ratio in the face of a perceived inundation in noise. Reading their narratives often suggests that the first stage is an increased attunement to random sense data. What, for most of us, is the random background content of ordinary experience becomes saturated with meaning. Much has been written to suggest that TIs are undiagnosed paranoid schizophrenics. But in this respect, gangstalking theories begin when someone simply extends ordinary pattern-seeking habits beyond their normal scope of activity.

Gangstalking narratives, with their focus on ambient noise as a persecutory tactic, provide an interesting prototype for recent claims about the fireworks being set off at unusually high rates in major cities. There is no dispute about the increase in fireworks. The question is what is causing it. The most common explanation is that various factors associated with the coronavirus shutdown, including boredom, free time, and stimulus checks, have all played a part, and that what we’re seeing is for the most part young people blowing off steam. However, various social media users have, in terms similar to TIs, asserted that this is no ordinary background noise, but an assault orchestrated by the police on black communities in retaliation against the ongoing protests, and an attempt to disorient through sensory overstimulation and sleep deprivation. These claims gained a higher profile when Pulitzer prize-winning New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones retweeted a thread elaborating the fireworks-cops theory. (She later deleted the tweet and apologized for seeming to endorse the theory, but not before giving it a considerable signal boost.)

Fireworks have featured in gangstalking narratives for years. One TI advocate remarked that “[a] Noise Campaign can range from multiple neighbors routinely playing loud music, individual stalkers with air-horns or fireworks, or organized ‘repair work’ that involves a high level of noise.” It’s unsurprising, then, that TIs have taken to social media in recent days saying, in effect, “we told you so.” One tweeted: “tbh it’s satisfying that all the people who think they hear fireworks finally know what us victims of gangstalking have been going through since the Bush years!” Another: “Every targeted individual knows about the fireworks harassment. It’s a hallmark of the program.” Others on social media have cited the COINTELPRO’s use of fireworks in its campaign against the Black Panthers as a precedent for the supposed noise harassment. COINTELPRO is a favored TI reference.

The embrace of a TI-like theory far beyond the TI community illustrates what we might call narrative convergence. This is only the latest instance of what might have once been seen as bizarre and outlandish narratives being embraced far beyond the “conspiracy communities” they are typically associated with. The simplest explanation for this convergence is that the ongoing collapse and fragmentation of coherent shared narratives has steadily decreased the collective signal-to-noise ratio. We are all increasingly inundated in noise. With the fireworks explosion, this is both literal and figurative.

As with TIs who attempt to find meaningful patterns in the noisy textures of quotidian experience, the types of narratives that are most natural to fall back on are “conspiratorial.” There are several reasons for this. The first is that such narratives are cognitively satisfying insofar as they satisfy an expectation of agency attribution. They assert, in other words, that behind a collection of random sense data is a single author whose motives can be discerned. The second is that, in part because they are satisfying in this manner, such narratives are ubiquitous in popular culture: they form part of the database of references that can be stitched together into an explanatory framework. The third is that, as in the case of COINTELPRO, the historical record does in fact feature real examples of comparable conspiracies. In some cases, these campaigns were carried out with the explicit assumption that their victims, once they became aware of their persecution, would be viewed as insane conspiracy theorists.

The fireworks explosion and its attendant narratives, then, might be seen as an allegory for the effects of generalized inundation in noise. Conspiratorial narratives have become mainstream in part because they are now the standard go-to for ad hoc efforts to increase the signal-to-noise ratio. We are all Targeted Individuals now.