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How a 'Storm Area 51' meme made one town declare a state of emergency

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The viral Facebook event, “Storm Area 51, They Can't Stop All of Us," is the gift that keeps on giving.

A quick refresher: 20-year-old college student Matty Roberts created the event as a joke this past June. He heard Joe Rogan interview Area 51 conspiracy theorist Bob Lazar on his podcast and as Roberts told NPR, “just thought it would be a funny idea for the meme page.". But things quickly got out of hand. The internet did what the internet does best and turned a joke about extraterrestrials into a viral happening. In the span of a few days, 1.6 million people said they’d turn up at Area 51 on September 20 to storm the gates and “see them aliens.”

Clearly, a lot of people who clicked “Going” were kidding. But there are alien truthers out there who might just show up, hoping to take advantage of the momentum to get some, uh, answers from the US government. And, of course, you have to assume there will be folks who make the trek into the desert just to see if anything will actually happen.

Responding for calls for him to perform as truthers stormed the gates, Lil Nas X posted an animated Area 51 cover of "Old Town Road" on YouTube

By mid-August, visitor traffic to the towns near Area 51 had increased by 1,700 percent. Officials are estimating as many as 20,000 people could show up for events on or around September 20. Lincoln and Nye Counties in southern Nevada have issued declarations of emergency, and Lincoln County Sheriff Kerry Lee told The Atlantic it’s been like nothing he’s ever seen before. Part of his job is apprehending would-be Area 51 trespassers, and most months he catches three or four. But this August, police caught seven people trying to break in in a span of 24 hours.

Back in July, overwhelmed by the response to his Facebook event and frankly worried he’d be targeted by the FBI, Roberts had the idea to capitalize on the community that would likely materialize IRL. He launched plans for a music festival, dubbed Alienstock, to be held in Rachel, Nevada, a tiny town near Area 51 with just 54 residents. Connie West, the proprietor of a quaint motel in town, the Little A'Le'Inn, said she’d wrangle the necessary permits and infrastructure to accommodate thousands of festival attendees. In an interview with local news station KTNV, West says she’s secured potable water and toilets and shower facilities, but she’s cagey about how many of them, and other important details. One Google Maps search of the Little A'Le'Inn and the surrounding town makes it clear there’s nowhere for thousands of people to sleep, much less shower or eat or use the bathroom or fill their cars with gas.

KTNV Channel 13 Las Vegas on YouTube

Citing the obvious — that Alienstock was heading for Fyre Fest levels of catastrophe — Roberts and Las Vegas-based event producer Frank DiMaggio decided to pull the plug. “We are not interested in, nor will we tolerate any involvement in a FYREFEST 2.0. We foresee a possible humanitarian disaster in the works, and we can’t participate in any capacity at this point,” reads a statement on the Alienstock website.

Roberts and DiMaggio are now encouraging would-be Area 51 raiders to come to an alternative Area 51 Celebration event in Las Vegas on September 19. It sounds far more legit than the beleaguered Alienstock festival in Rachel, which West insists she’s still throwing with or without Roberts’ involvement.

The whole ordeal is ridiculous, and the "Burning Man of the internet" jokes practically write themselves. But the fact that counties in Nevada are preparing for disaster belies how dark the "Storm Area 51" meme has become IRL.

Know Your Meme

The military's official line is that its Air Force base in the middle of the Nevada desert is for testing bombs, and the government has made it very clear it doesn't want conspiracy theorists charging the gates. “[Area 51] is an open training range for the U.S. Air Force, and we would discourage anyone from trying to come into the area where we train American armed forces,” Air Force spokeswoman Laura McAndrews told the Washington Post.

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