As investigators conduct a painstaking probe for the causes of California’s devastating wildfires, conspiracists have spawned their own theory: ignition by a secret cabal of nefarious “internationalists,” including Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sergey Brin, who seek to run the world.
“There are hidden powers behind these calculated strikes in California,” warns one YouTube video, titled “An Open Letter To the People of California.”
In Facebook forums, YouTube videos and Reddit threads amassing tens of thousands of views, believers swap manipulated images of “light pillars” from the sky — proof, they say, that rural homes were targeted to burn, forcing residents into cities, where they can be more easily controlled by shadowy forces scheming at oppression.
People have long reached for far-flung theories to explain shocking calamities, such as the mysterious “grassy knoll” assassin of President John F. Kennedy and the U.S. government’s complicity in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center.
Psychologists say these theories gain traction during times of trauma because they ease uncertainty, provide a platform for personal grievances and focus blame on an outside group — usually a network of “elites.” Suspicions are cradled by the internet, which allows people who share those thoughts to more easily connect.
“Whether it’s wildfires, contamination of water supply or some ‘deep state’ takeover — all these beliefs satisfy the need to make sense of a threatening and anxious world,” said psychologist Joseph A. Vitriol, a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University.
There’s a new high-tech twist to the perceived plots behind California’s recent Paradise, Woolsey and Wine Country fires. Asserting that nature could never incite a fire so fast or hot, some conspiracists say images of the light pillars reveal “directed energy weaponry” that emits highly focused heat. Others say fires were ignited by drones or satellite-based lasers.
While believers are split over the precise contours of the conspiracy, they agree that “geoengineering” is behind California’s parched and flammable landscape. The state’s weather is being deliberately altered, they allege. Then aircraft dump “chemtrails” of drying agents, which are easily ignited.
Who’s behind this complex scheme? Conspiracy websites such as Infowars, run by the right-wing provocateur Alex Jones, claim it is a secret plot by the moneyed elite to make certain parts of the country off-limits to human use and impose control.
Widely shared maps titled “Wildfires line up EXACTLY in the same path as the California High Speed Rail System” offer evidence, the conspiracists claim, that the fires are a plot to move people out of the way for construction of the transit system, key to eventual state takeover.
(The made-up fire maps’ geography is off, showing that San Diego, Los Angeles, San Jose, San Francisco and Sacramento were consumed by flames. Nor does the map line up with the train’s proposed route.)
Critics say social media companies have not stopped conspiracy theories from blossoming on their platforms. YouTube says it is committed to tackling misinformation, Facebook removed accounts that engage in “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” and Reddit banned a subreddit devoted to conspiracy theories, but sites continue to host false narratives about the fires in California.
Meanwhile, teams of highly skilled Cal Fire investigators are scouring the rugged terrain of Butte and Los Angeles counties for scientific clues to the fires — evidence that could someday aid prevention. The truth is climate change and poor forest management set the stage for these disasters, say scientists.
But that hasn’t stopped the theorists.
Former Petaluma fire Captain John Lord, who now lives in Lakeport, called the fires an “unnatural phenomenon.”
“The rate of spread is abnormally fast. … In a normal structural fire, there will always be things that are left — porcelain toilets, tiles, washers and dryers. In these fires, everything is gone,” he said.
“Planes released nanoparticles of metals, such as aluminum, into the atmosphere,” he said. “That is a drying agent, and highly combustible.”
On YouTube, a Paradise resident identified only as Cheryl described seeing “a huge corporate helicopter circling over my house … surveying the town, getting ready to grasp it.”
“The abundance of photographic and video evidence of so-called fire damage to both vehicles and structures in clear and conclusive. These November 2018 wildfires were not responsible for some of
the most catastrophic destruction,” wrote Michael Thomas, editor of State of the Nation: Alternative News, Analysis and Commentary.
To be sure, some conspiracies turned out to be real. Watergate happened. So did the Iran-Contra affair. Unbelievably, the Russian government meddled in our 2016 U.S. presidential election.
But the creatively conspiratorial, if crazy, theories hold special appeal because fires can be mysterious, said psychology professor David Ludden of Georgia Gwinnett College, who studies conspiracies.
“And they fit in with an existing world view that we can’t trust the government, that all these nefarious agencies are out there trying to get us,” he said. Internet sharing “creates a sense of security and superiority, of having inside knowledge that others don’t.”
Such thinking can distract the public from learning the objective reality of wildfires, making it more difficult to reduce risk, said Harvard’s Vitriol.
“It’s not just your crazy uncle in a tin foil hat, ruminating about the government,” he said. If the internet gives these ideas traction, “they spread and gain legitimacy, so they’re harder to combat.”