When Matty Roberts invited his Facebook audience to "Storm Area 51, They Can't Stop All of Us," he accomplished several things:
● He got the attention of the U.S. Air Force, which manages the top secret military training area situated, presumably for good reason, in a desolate corner of the Nevada desert.
● Roberts confirmed, for the millionth time, that we live in an era when a Bakersfield kid can have a greater global reach than The New York Times did when he was born a scant 20 years ago.
● He underscored the startling and alarming gullibility that we humans have always had, but that is magnified a billionfold by the useful but manipulatable tool that is social media.
Some backstory will be useful here.
On June 27, Mathew Kyle Roberts, an Independence High School graduate and Bakersfield College student, placed a little joke on Facebook inviting the world — or at least anyone who might happen upon his post — to descend en masse on the mysterious and legendary military installation held in popular lore as a kind of receiving center for visiting alien life forms. And he set a date for this rendezvous: Sept. 20.
Roberts has a good number of Facebook friends but, in a testament to the vast, often unintended reach of the social media platform, 1.8 million people RSVP'd in the affirmative and 1.3 million others declared their possible interest.
Now, I'm well aware that the vast majority of people who responded probably knew Roberts' post was meant only in good fun. Some might have figured he was a wacko, but an entertaining wacko who deserved some innocent, playful validation.
But if one-one hundredth of 1 percent truly believe this is a legitimate undertaking worthy of their participation, 18 people will assemble somewhere near Area 51 on Sept. 20. And these will probably not be 18 completely rational people.
Eighteen people storming the gates of a top secret U.S. military base would be a tremendous inconvenience and, in an equally breathtaking understatement offered to ABC News by Air Force spokeswoman Laura McAndrews, "dangerous."
Why, at this point, should we care?
Because Roberts has learned what adversarial foreign governments and U.S. intelligence agencies know all too well: People are gullible. They will happily hop aboard your Facebook fantasy-train if it suits their fancy, be it whimsical delusion or political predisposition.
Considering how often we're fed inaccurate information, be it propaganda or simple parody, it strikes me as amazing that we're still such suckers for fake news. Credible fact-checkers abound but they're clearly underutilized — probably, in part, because they don't always yield the validation some are looking for.
Roberts' Area 51 fun is mostly harmless, those 18 crazies notwithstanding, but gullibility of a political or cultural nature has real consequences.
Have I mentioned that we're on the cusp of an election year?
Something concrete may yet come out of Roberts' little Area 51 escapade. He is said to be seriously considering a real event: an "out of this world" experience in the Nevada desert. He visualizes a festival with electronic dance music, indie rock, that sort of thing. Bands, he says, have messaged him about playing at this still-a-fantasy festival.
If "Storm Area 51" actually goes anywhere, it'll probably need some support, and last week one potential partner actually came forward, if haltingly: Budweiser.
"Screw it. Free Bud Light to any alien that makes it out," appeared on Bud Light's official Twitter account.
Followed by: "We'd like to be the first brand to formally announce that we will not be sponsoring the Area 51 raid."
Good. Back away slowly, Budweiser. This one could get out of hand. Not nearly as out of hand as other Facebook-fed ruses in recent American history, but out of hand just the same.