When most of us get diarrhea at a fast food restaurant, we chalk it up to consuming too much sodium too quickly, or age rendering our digestive system more sensitive, and move on. This is not exactly what happened yesterday, when the Police Benevolent Association (PBA) reported that three NYPD officers had been hospitalized after drinking Shake Shack milkshakes that they believed had been tampered with bleach.
The PBA tweeted that the officers in question had been assigned to protest detail in lower Manhattan. “When NYC police officers cannot even take meal without coming under attack, it is clear that environment in which we work has deteriorated to a critical level,” the PBA tweeted in conjunction with a press statement. Even Shake Shack tweeted that it was “horrified” by the allegations and would be working with the NYPD to look into the incident.
The claim was breathlessly aggregated by multiple news outlets, until Chief of Police Rodney Harrison walked back on it by issuing the following statement on Twitter:
After a thorough investigation by the NYPD’s Manhattan South investigators, it has been determined that there was no criminality by shake shack’s employees.
— Chief Rodney Harrison (@NYPDDetectives) June 16, 2020
CBS New York later reported that the culprit may have been cleaning solution that wasn’t properly rinsed out of the milkshake machine, not intentional poisoning.
While the allegations certainly got traction due to the recent protests against police brutality and the defund the police movement, “there’s a long history of food contamination legends,” folklorist Benjamin Radford tells Rolling Stone, citing the urban legends about poisoned Halloween candy and a conspiracy theory that the Tropical Fantasy fruit drink was the KKK’s attempt to sterilize the black community as examples. “The common thread here is this notion of victimization” by groups of people that feel they are specifically being targeted — and police officers “certainly feel they’re under attack, whether that’s justified or not,” he adds.
In this vein, police officers specifically have a history of alleging food tampering. Last summer, an Indianapolis police officer accused a McDonald’s employee of tampering with his food by biting into his sandwich, only to later realize, after placing an anonymous phone call to a radio station, that he was the one who took a bite. Later that year, a Kansas police officer claimed that a McDonald’s employee wrote the words “fucking pig” on his beverage cup, only for it to be later revealed that he had written it himself.
Such incidents are a recipe for instantaneous virality, Katie Way wrote earlier this year for Vice: “Social media allows cops direct access to the public and a way to weaponize deep wells of public sympathy for them; local news outlets are quick to notice and pass on the bad things happening to their local departments, and national news outlets, eternally hungry for content to aggregate, slurp the shit up and beg for more.”
Given this context and the current protests, the poisoned milkshake story should’ve been immediately red-flagged. “People tend to immediately seize on the worst-case scenario,” says Radford. “Instead of thinking it may have been a mistake, or machines weren’t fully cleaned — which happens all the time — the first thing people went to is this was a targeted, intentional assault on police officers, and you can see why given the current climate they would jump to that.”
Still, even though the statement from the chief of the NYPD should have put the allegations of intentional poisoning to rest, it’s clear that some people on the right (particularly those who have a vested interest in painting the protesters as violent or malicious) still want to believe it. “Was there a lab test to determine conclusively that the drinks weren’t spiked with a bleach-like substance?,” right-wing provocateur Andy Ngo replied to Harrison’s tweet.
“Conspiracy is where rumor meets political motivation,” says Radford. “By framing this as an attack on the police, there are obvious political benefits.”