We live in an era dominated by fake news, when NBA players and pop-punk guitarists feel comfortable sharing their beliefs about UFOs and faked moon landings, and when a not-insignificant number of people that JFK Jr. is still alive and disguised as a slightly overweight, bearded man from Pittsburgh.
So it’s not all that surprising that more than 400,000 people — yes, you read that number right, it’s nearly half a million — would sign up for a Facebook event to raid Area 51, the notorious Nevada district that’s been the subject of alien conspiracy theories for decades, to “see them aliens.”
OK, so yes, if the above event description wasn’t totally clear, the event is intended as a troll. (If you needed any other indication the event wasn’t in earnest, it was created in part by a Facebook page called “Shitposting cause I’m in shambles.”) But in what is perhaps a perfect storm of two segments of internet culture — true believer conspiracy theorists and gleeful shitposters — hundreds of thousands of people have signed up, with some of the commenters in the former category posting “blueprints” of the base or requesting drone or Facebook Live coverage of the event.
In a Facebook message to Rolling Stone, one of the creators of the event, who identified himself as a 20-year-old named Val, says he got the idea for the event while playing World of Warcraft, which features a zone called Area 52. “I can’t say I ever expected the response it has received at all,” he admits. He estimates that while he’s only seen a few dozen or so commenters taking the idea seriously by formulating “legitimate plans” to infiltrate the military base, there are a “few thousand” people on the page who do think it’s serious, “and only comment on why it’s an absolutely terrible idea and we’re all going to die,” he says.
A classified military base about 150 miles outside of Las Vegas, Area 51 has long been the focal point of various conspiracy theories speculating about the existence of extraterrestrial life. Because it’s a classified military area, it’s not exactly clear what the purpose of the base is, which is exactly why it has prompted so much speculation; it wasn’t until as recently as 2013 that the CIA even publicly acknowledged its existence.
Due to the secrecy surrounding the area, it’s attracted much scrutiny from conspiracy theorists; theories range wildly, from speculation that Area 51 is used to examine crashed UFOs to the belief that the site is used as a laboratory to replicate alien viruses. A New York Times investigation from earlier this year, revealing new military guidelines for how to report on what it refers to as unexplained aerial phenomena, only served to fuel the fire of speculation.
Considering nearly half of Americans reportedly believe in aliens, according to one 2017 survey, it’s not super surprising that this particular event — no matter the intentions behind it — would garner so much attention. Still, in the highly unlikely (repeat: highly unlikely) event that there are aliens at Area 51, however, let’s hope they have a well-developed sense of irony and Japanese anime.
This story has been updated with comment from the creator of the event.