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Zac Freeland/Vox

How an online gag about storming the military base became a real-life drama involving a rural town, the government, and frequent evocations of the Fyre Festival.

RACHEL, Nevada — For the mess he’s found himself in, Matty Roberts is surprisingly calm.

One night in late June, Roberts was up late scrolling on Facebook. That is his wont; a 21-year-old college kid who lives with his parents in Bakersfield, California, he spends a lot of time online in anime and video gaming communities. And most of all, Roberts is into shitposting, trading in a genre of particularly silly memes that’s especially popular on Facebook. The posts can range from a SpongeBob screenshot that makes a joke about the cartoon character getting stoned, to a fart noise-laden remix of Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” video.

Roberts runs a small Facebook page called “Shitposting cause I’m in shambles,” which scratches his meme-seeking itch. He not only shares posts he sees and likes; he creates his own. And that June night, he posted something different than just an image macro-referencing a cartoon or existing online goof. He decided to create a Facebook event as the stage for his joke; it went on to strike a chord with millions.

He called it “Storm Area 51, They Can’t Stop All of Us.” Inspired by the covert Nevada military base that many have long believed to be some kind of alien testing ground or site where the government is investigating unidentified aerial phenomena, he proposed gathering as many people as possible on September 20 to cross the fenced-off land. “Let’s see them aliens,” the event description implored.

Within days, nearly a million people had signed on — either in jest or in earnest. Not long after that, the military got involved.

Roberts’ shitpost had quickly, surprisingly, caused a stir that was at once hilarious and very serious. To date, 3 million Facebook users have showered Roberts’ prank event page with international attention, playing into its tongue-in-cheek recognition of the government secrecy and extraterrestrial ties that Area 51 represents in popular culture. But as online jokes spread about bringing home aliens from a locked-down military base, “Storm Area 51” bled into real life. A spokesperson for the Air Force ominously warned people against approaching the base’s borders. Media outlets fought to interview Roberts and reported on his meme as if it were an impending catastrophe.

It has also triggered preparations for a state of emergency in two Nevada counties and generated more alien merch than anyone could ever want. Most of all, the meme has thrust Roberts, a long-haired, laid-back bro, into a national spotlight he probably didn’t deserve — or into the center of a debacle involving a rural town, the federal government, a business partner, a cease-and-desist order, and frequent evocations of Fyre Festival. Depends on who you ask.

“It’s not daunting at all,” Roberts says, with no small amount of hubris. As interest swelled, he took it upon himself to put on a legitimate Area 51 event — 148 miles away from Rachel, back in Las Vegas. “There is a little bit of pressure, but at the same time, it’s an exciting kind of pressure. It’s amazing.”

In the two months since he posted his open invitation, Roberts has become the self-proclaimed face of a live festival dubbed Alienstock. This weekend, real people are showing up for it.

Storm Area 51 was an obvious joke — one that tapped into the internet’s love for memes and easily repeatable humor and coalesced into something much bigger: competing festivals for UFO conspiracy theorists, fans of shitposting, and small-town Nevada locals.

By boosting Roberts’ profile, the event has become more than a gag. It is now, as Roberts says, a “brand.” Not to mention a potential crisis. (Alienstock may not be this year’s Fyre Festival, but rampant opportunism is threatening to bring it close.)

And Storm Area 51 has become emblematic of the cycle of fame in 2019: It was born of the internet, turned a random college kid from Bakersfield into a national figure overnight, and is so meta that it can barely be understood by those outside of it and the world it was born of.

“It plays perfectly into the shitposting culture, and it also plays perfectly into the genuine conspiracy theorists,” Roberts says. “I think it created the perfect storm.”

Storm Area 51 exploded. And so did Matty Roberts.

The inspiration for Roberts’s event was a Joe Rogan Experience interview that Roberts watched this summer, featuring Area 51 obsessive and self-proclaimed whistleblower Bob Lazar, a supposed ex-government engineer who has dubiously claimed to have worked on alien technology near the Air Force site. On the show, Lazar recounted what he claims is the extraterrestrial history of the base. But Roberts wasn’t taking Lazar too seriously: “First and foremost,” he says of his Facebook page, “It’s a shitposting page.”

 Bridget Bennett/AFP/Getty Images
Barbed wire and signage border a gate of the Nevada Test and Training Range, commonly referred to as Area 51, near Rachel, Nevada, on September 13, 2019.

After his meme went viral, Roberts saw an opening to take the event’s notoriety and turn it into offline fame. He could become more than a screen name; he could become the face of 2019’s biggest meme. Better yet, maybe he could even make money off it.

“The whole Alienstock, Storm Area 51 thing is something that is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I feel like not taking advantage of this diving board that I’ve been given is just wasted,” Roberts says. “So I might as well move forward with it.”

Moving forward in this case initially meant directing people to the town of Rachel, Nevada, home to just 54 people, most of them retirees. Rachel’s claim to fame is that it lies just 30 miles north of Area 51, making it the closest possible gathering point for potential Area 51 raiders. (“You really won’t need a map to find places in Rachel,” the town’s slightly cynical website notes.) Roberts hooked up with the town’s sole local business, a lodge called the Little A’Le’Inn, to plan Alienstock as a Burning Man-style EDM music festival. As many as 30,000 attendees, who had already booked rooms nearby or expressed interest in driving up, were expected.

The seams started to show soon after Roberts announced Alienstock in late July. Selling tickets to an event loosely inspired by a meme suggested a shift from the ironic and self-effacing to the self-aggrandizing and profiteering — Alienstock was to be a weekend-long experience in the middle of nowhere, with parking and camping spaces costing between $60 and $140, all in order to see unnamed EDM acts and … get stoked about aliens? Roberts and the Little A’Le’Inn’s proprietor, Connie West, made few other promises.

Comparisons to Fyre Festival, the 2017 music festival-turned-criminal case, came fast, including from the citizens of Rachel itself. In mid-August, they presented a list of concerns to the commissioners of Lincoln County, Nevada, in an emphatic plea for help in preventing Alienstock from happening:

The main event organizer is a 20-year old kid. The media already likens this to the 2017 Fyre festival disaster where people paid a lot of money for a concert weekend that never happened. There are still many open law suits from that event.

An event with that many people typically takes 6-8 months to plan. The county and Rachel had 6 weeks.

Commissioners, please ask yourself: Do you really think sufficient planning has been done to be ready for this event? This can potentially ruin our county if it goes bad. It certainly will ruin Rachel.

Lincoln County Sheriff Kerry Lee told Vox in early September that the cash-strapped county was looking at spending as much as $300,000 providing additional law enforcement to support Rachel and other nearby towns during the weekend, all for an expected influx of visitors who might be looking to tempt fate by charging into Air Force territory.

“My staff has been inundated with phone calls and working on this,” Lee said. “We had to work on a law enforcement plan, communications plan, medical plan, mass casualty plan, active shooter plan — all these plans we have to put into place before this thing happens.”

He sounded exhausted. “I spend almost 100 percent of my day doing Area 51 stuff.”

 Bridget Bennett/AFP/Getty Images
A sign about the joke event Storm Area 51 hangs outside the Little A’Le’Inn information center and inn in Rachel, Nevada, on September 13, 2019.

Meanwhile, Roberts and West still hadn’t offered concrete details on what visitors could expect during Alienstock, which was then set to take place September 20–22 in Rachel. Roberts had shifted away from encouraging a security breach at Area 51 and instead began offering Alienstock as counter-programming to storming the military facility. (Thankfully, he recognized the dangers of trying to raid the base. The Air Force is not playing around.)

Roberts drove to Rachel from Southern California two weeks early and posted selfies. He tweeted about anime and UFC. And he insisted that Alienstock — and he, Matty Roberts — was a brand Area 51 believers would want to buy into.

“Alienstock has always been more of a cultural movement,” said Roberts. “It was born out of the curiosity of the internet and the curiosity surrounding aliens, UFOs, everything like that, and just wanting to gather and throw cool parties.”

From “cultural movement” to a Bud Light-sponsored festival

It’s that desire to “throw cool parties” that has inflated Roberts’ profile to troublingly unstable heights. Days after arriving in Rachel, Roberts announced that he and Alienstock had parted ways with West and the Little A’Le’Inn. He blamed a lack of “critical infrastructure” and a fear that, in West’s care, the event could become “a possible humanitarian disaster.”

“I had to try to remove any kind of association from it because I don’t want my brand, and I don’t want my face, to be associated with something as disastrous as Fyre Festival 2.0,” Roberts said. “And it could have been even worse than that with the location, the military base right there, and just the sheer controversy behind the thing. So with everything presented and not enough security or anything like that, I had no choice but to kind of try to wash my hands of the whole thing.”

Despite weeks of warnings that Rachel, Nevada, couldn’t handle an event of any size, a pre-signed state of emergency declaration (another one soon followed), and a non-existent event schedule, it took Roberts until the eleventh hour to move the event to a safer location.

He signed on to co-host an Area 51-themed party at the Downtown Las Vegas Event Center on September 19 with Bud Light as a sponsor. Alienstock — or at least, the spirit of Storm Area 51 that had driven it — was dead.

West, of the Little A’Le’Inn, insists she will still host some kind of event in Rachel, however, with bands who will play for free. Roberts has served her with a cease-and-desist notice.

The UFO enthusiasts fight back

The breakdown in West’s and Roberts’s partnership is just a sliver of the drama that has ensued from the moment that Roberts declared his intent to prolong the Storm Area 51 meme. And it’s not just between Roberts and West; alien and UFO enthusiasts see Roberts as a negative presence in their communities, too.

 Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Matty Roberts moved his Alienstock festival from its original planned location in Rachel, Nevada, to the Downtown Las Vegas Events Center at the last minute.

One of Roberts’ most vocal critics is the documentarian Jeremy Corbell, who happened to be a guest on that Joe Rogan podcast episode Roberts first watched. Corbell, who had spent the last seven years following Bob Lazar and spreading what they say is the word of truth about Area 51, is a passionate believer in UFO technology and greatly distrusts the government. For Corbell, the interest in Roberts’ Storm Area 51 meme reflects a huge moment — for his work, for ufology, for anyone who will entertain him or Lazar.

But Roberts, he says, is undermining all of that.

“When you’ve got the microphone, you have a responsibility to act in the same way that you talk,” Corbell says. “And if you are really concerned about safety, then you need to inform people and put aside personal gain.”

Corbell and Roberts’ relationship, according to Corbell, is a tenuous one; Corbell says that the kid from Bakersfield created Alienstock “on the sly or to the left.” And he thinks Roberts is turning this flashpoint for discussion of UFOs into a potential train wreck. Days before Alienstock was set to take place, two YouTubers jumped the gun and were arrested for trying to reach Area 51 on their own.

“This is far beyond a meme and alien Budweiser [beer]. This opportunity is far beyond that,” Corbell says. “It’s a cultural and social movement that has been going on for 30 years, since May 13, 1989,” the date that Bob Lazar first spoke out about the existence of Area 51. “Period. Full stop.”

Yet were Roberts and West really the only ones acting in their own self-interest? Corbell is also benefitting from Roberts’s mess. The more we talk about Storm Area 51 — positively or negatively — the more we push the names of Jeremy Corbell and Bob Lazar, as well as Connie West and Matty Roberts, into the public’s consciousness. Rachel, Nevada? At one point, the town was selling Storm Area 51 T-shirts on its website.

Perhaps that’s why Matty Roberts is so calm despite the chaos he’s created. No matter what happens, he’s coming out of this as someone greater than a kid with a shitposting Facebook page and fewer than 1,000 Twitter followers. He’ll be that Area 51 guy, for better or worse.

For now, he’s taking a semester off school to work on Alienstock’s future, but when he goes back, he says, he might switch his major to marketing. He’d probably be darn good at it, too.

An Extraterrestrial Highway sign posted along State Route 375 in Rachel, Nevada, on July 22, 2019.

Author: Allegra Frank

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