In 2017, as Hurricane Irma twirled menacingly toward the Florida coastline, a young Floridian named Ryon Edwards coped with storm-related anxiety in a very modern way. He logged onto Facebook and created an event called “Shoot at Hurricane Irma.” Over 80,000 people responded that they were interested in staging an attack on the “GOOFY LOOKING WINDY HEADASS NAMED IRMA.” No one ever opened fire on Irma; at least, there is no documentation of such an event. The Facebook post was a joke, a way to diffuse a frightening situation with a lighthearted meme. Despite some hand-wringing by local authorities, it wasn’t actually worth fretting over.
In recent days, a similarly playful Facebook event has reached an even greater height of popularity. “Storm Area 51, They Can’t Stop All of Us,” an event scheduled for 3 a.m. on September 20 at the famously mysterious Nevada military base, has racked up over 1.4 million RSVPs over the past week, with more than a million other people expressing interest in storming Area 51 en masse. “We will all meet up at the Area 51 Alien Center tourist attraction and coordinate our entry. If we naruto run, we can move faster than their bullets,” the post reads. (“Naruto” is a reference to Naruto Uzumaki, an anime character who runs with an awkward stride.) “Lets see them aliens.”
Like the Irma event, it’s an obvious stunt. The viral appeal is equally obvious, as it is fun to imagine a ragtag group of strangers liberating Martians from one of the most notoriously locked-down places in the country, like the plot of a pleasantly stupid action movie.
“Honestly I only RSVP’d for the memes,” one event attendee told me via Facebook Messenger. A Discord chat room created to “strategize” about the attack is filled with memes about adopting aliens and chatter about role-playing. “I think we need a division of vapers. To make an escape cloud,” one participant suggested. “I don’t think no one is going to this,” another said. When I identified myself as a journalist and asked people on the event page whether they’d speak with me, I was repeatedly called a “Fed”—exactly what I deserved for posting on an event page co-created by an account called “Shitposting cause im in shambles.”
But for all the jokes, the event has sparked real-world uptick in interest in traveling to the Area 51 region. People have been calling the local hotel and bar Little A’Le’Inn, for instance, “nonstop, all day,” manager Samantha Travis told The Ringer. “Our rooms have been booked for a few days now.” (Travis noted that the area does have plenty of available campground space.) “I think that people actually might go and have a party,” Jackson Weimer, a University of Delaware student who runs a popular meme account and accepted that I was not a cop, told me. “Some idiots will probably take it too far and try and rush the base but I hope everyone is smart enough to realize when a meme is a meme.” While the vast majority of participants are openly kidding around and not seriously planning to attack a military base, the military itself appears to be treating this as a matter of concern. An Air Force spokesperson told the Washington Post that it is “ready to protect America and its assets.” (The Air Force did not respond to The Ringer’s request for comment.)
Reinforcements seem unnecessary and more than a little overdramatic. We’ve entered the portion of the meme’s life cycle where Chipotle tweets about it. The creators are already attempting to monetize their joke through novelty merch, and Lil Nas X has posted a tongue-in-cheek “Old Town Raid” video. Once The Ringer publishes this, the blissful silliness of the joke will be even more corrupted by adults taking it too seriously. There’s a good chance that interest in “Storm Area 51” will be a distant memory by the time September 20 actually rolls around, infusing a few local motels with a bit of extra cash from small parties of extremely online friend groups, and not much else.
Workin’ on some new recipes for the folks inside Area 51 The Radioactive Ribs are lookin’ goooooood pic.twitter.com/gW9GFqnvvQ— Guy Fieri (@GuyFieri) July 16, 2019
While a civilian blitz of Area 51 is a comically poor strategy for a close encounter, the event’s virality does make a special kind of sense this summer. Believing in aliens used to automatically catapult a person into kook territory, but things have changed. A number of prominent public figures, from a renowned Harvard astrophysicist to billionaire aerospace CEO Robert Bigelow, have come out as Team I Want to Believe. Congress is increasingly requesting briefings about UFO sightings. Reports from mainstream outlets like The New York Times have lent credence to the idea that potential extraterrestrial encounters are worthy of serious consideration, at the very least.
Aliens are creeping into the mainstream at the same time that all kinds of esoteric and weird ideas are gaining or regaining currency. It’s appropriate that this meme began on Facebook, which has made it more socially acceptable to declare formerly fringe beliefs. The largest social network has played a central role in spreading disinformation and misinformation and fomenting a kaleidoscope of conspiracy theories, including claims that the moon landing is a hoax and that the Earth is flat. The notion that people might use Facebook as an organizing tool to uncover the “truth” of Area 51 adds another layer to the event.
There’s been some chatter about how these memes are tapping a nerve because people have repressed or sublimated their desire to storm the concentration camps at the border to free the people imprisoned inside; this theory is about as far-fetched as the idea that the government is hiding alien life forms, which is to say, only sort of.
In the same way that people took a moment to laugh at the concept of destroying a hurricane with bullets, the punch line to “Storm Area 51” is how cartoonishly futile life can feel. What sort of joke can really puncture the terrors of climate change or evil governments? The event’s popularity feeds into a larger mood of low-grade fatalism and hyperbolic violence percolating online. People daydream about kamikaze-ing into an active military training zone in order to liberate extraterrestrials for the same reason others beg Harry Styles to murder them with a tow truck.
Nobody’s going to stage a coup on a military base for the social media clout. Part of the punch line here is that no one is planning to actually overthrow anything at all. “Hello US government, this is a joke, and I do not actually intend to go ahead with this plan,” the top post on the event page reads. “I just thought it would be funny and get me some thumbsy uppies on the internet.” The truth may be out there, but the only goal here is likes. The assumption that aliens exist is not the core absurdist element of “Storm Area 51.” It’s the idea that people could use the internet to successfully rise up against a corrupt institution that truly seems to be from outer space.