The ‘Storm Area 51’ trend, explained
If you’ve been on social media in the past week, there’s a good chance you’ve come across a meme about Area 51.
A lot of the posts mention invading the top-secret military base, which is based in the Nevada desert. Since Area 51 has long been associated with UFOs and aliens, extraterrestrial memes are among the most popular. There are entire Facebook pages dedicated to them.
But why did Area 51 content start trending on social media — and who created the idea to invade the military base in the first place? To answer that, PolitiFact had to get on Facebook.
On June 27, a California resident named Matty Roberts created a Facebook event. Titled "Storm Area 51, They Can't Stop All of Us," it called for people to invade the top-secret military base at 3 a.m. Sept. 20 to "see them aliens."
"We will all meet up at the Area 51 Alien Center tourist attraction and coordinate our entry," the about page reads. "If we naruto (sic) run, we can move faster than their bullets. Lets (sic) see them aliens."
"Naruto run" refers to the streamlined running style of the character Naruto Uzumaki in the Japanese anime series "Naruto."
The event started as a joke, Roberts told KLAS-TV, a CBS affiliate in Las Vegas, July 18. But now, the page has more than 1.7 million people "going" and an additional 1.3 million "interested" in the event. There’s an official website with merchandise. And Roberts is concerned that "the FBI is going to show up" at his house.
Area 51 is the common name for a highly classified U.S. Air Force base in the Nevada desert, about 150 miles north of Las Vegas.
The base is part of the Nevada Test and Training Range and is officially called Homey Airport or Groom Lake. It’s primarily used for test flights, although its secrecy makes it hard to tell what else goes on there. The Air Force didn’t acknowledge its existence for decades. Until recently, satellite imagery of the base was censored.
Aside from the fact that this Saturday is the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, it’s hard to say for sure.
A Google Trends search for the term "Area 51" shows that search interest started increasing on or around July 7, then peaked July 13. Searches for the term "Area 51 raid" also spiked during that period.
The first mention of the original Facebook event that we could find was on a forum for gun enthusiasts July 3, when around 12,000 Facebook users said they were attending. Then the event made its way onto a couple of blogs on July 5 and 6. One post from a site called Mysterious Universe made its way onto Reddit, where memes seem to have already been circulating, on July 7 — the same day a popular YouTube channel published a video about the event.
Now, there are several offshoots of the original "Storm Area 51" Facebook event. One page called "Area 51 Memes" has gained more than 75,000 followers since its creation July 13 and regularly publishes humorous memes about aliens. The page also created a private group with about 3,000 members.
And it’s not just Facebook. Over the past week, Area 51 memes have flooded Instagram, where #area51 has more than 500,000 posts and #area51memes has more than 75,000. On Twitter, #Area51 was trending last week.
Yes and no. While the influx of memes about Area 51 suggest that most social media users think of the Facebook event as a joke, NPR spoke with the owner of an inn near Area 51 who said she has booked all 10 rooms for the day of the event, as well as 60 campsites nearby.
Nellis Air Force Base, which administers Area 51, told the Associated Press in a statement that it’s aware of the Facebook event and that "any attempt to illegally access the area is highly discouraged."
We haven’t seen a lot of false content about the Area 51 event circulating on social media. But there is still some misleading content out there.
Some headlines we’ve seen make it sound like government officials recently shot a man for trying to enter Area 51. The posts were flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)
In fact, those stories reference an incident from January. The headlines are misleading.
Then there are stories that seem too good to be true, but are.
Several hundred Facebook users have shared a story from WCYB-TV, an NBC affiliate based in Virginia, that claims Bud Light is offering "free beer to aliens who ‘make it out’ of Area 51." That story, which was also flagged to us Facebook, is based on a tweet from Bud Light promoting a special Area 51 can design.
We reached out to Bud Light to see if it actually plans on distributing the limited edition beer. In an email, Miles Ritenour, director of marketing and communications for Bud Light, said it does — but only if a tweet with the design gets more than 51,000 retweets.