An Internet Hoax Hits the Edge of the Mainstrream
"And we listen to the sea
And look at the sky in a poetic kind of way.
What you call it—
When you look at the sky in a poetic kind of way?
You know, when you grope for Luna?"
—The Pixies, "Subbacultcha"
Rocks were supposed to fall from the sky on June 19 and 24, according to a post on an internet site owned by a guy in Cleveland, TN. They were supposed to have been comets, actually, followed by a cosmic "anomaly" on the 26th.
Never mind that the site is called bushcountry.org and specializes in paeans to W. and thinly veiled anti-Semitism. Nor that the post was an anonymous retransmission of material allegedly posted pseudonymously (by "Aussie Bloke") on another, unnamed site. And never mind the fact that the science was dodgy. Aussie Bloke’s theory that rocks would fall from the sky was couched in just enough fact to misdirect uncritical Google-jockeys and leave them wondering whether maybe this crackpot theory had something going for it. And if it did, the end of the world as we know it was coming.
Like a clump of rock in a nascent solar system, anomalous facts accreted around Aussie Bloke’s theory: Many nations had put their battle-ready navies out to sea for exercises in time for the impact dates (probably true); the Federal Reserve and European Central Bank had increased the money supply as if to ease recovery in the wake of a crisis (partially true); and rocks already had fallen from the sky in Washington state (probably true, but irrelevant).
By June, the whole story—the comets, the navies, the central bankers, and the meteor— had accumulated unavoidably in certain corners of the internet. People had emailed the link to friends for purely aesthetic reasons. The posts were Web Paranoid Verité, shot, chopped and scored by a master.
"I am over 60 years old. I have seen it come and seen it go. I watched the computer age being born. I have seen and heard every type of doom and gloom scenario you could imagine. All my life I have watched the skies and believe me…I know when something is NOT right with…the universe in general. For years now…longer than most of you have been alive…I have seen the indoctrination of doom spread across mankind’s face. People are not what they used to be and things have changed a lot. AND NOW…after many years of planning and indoctrination…what they were subconsciously preparing us for is at our very doorstep. You see…I cannot blame the powers that be for covering up what they know…and they know a hell of a lot.…I used to work for them. Crying wolf always works. Spread ‘false’ alarm and when nothing happens…then everyone sleeps once more…only they will be much harder to awaken NEXT time. NOW…the wolf is here…and we all sleep."
That comes early in the Bloke’s narrative, after he’d spent weeks trying to get his fellow posters to take seriously his claims that something very big and very bad was about to happen. It’s that appeal to a seething, widely-distributed paranoia, couched in the most general terms that made the story so appealing. The internet spawns subcultures-within-subcultures, and each of the myriad subdivisions of the Paranoid division had its own take: That it was government disinformation designed to sow panic. That it represented the fulfillment of the ancient Sumerian prophecy surrounding Nibiru, or Planet X, the Earth’s evil sibling and bringer of civilization. That it confirmed a theory about a purported gap in evidence regarding the formation of the Moon. That it was a hoax, a culture jam worthy of net-art activist-pranksters Rtmark.com.
The Christian-millennial right-wingers who frequent Bushcountry.org likely saw it as a portent of the End Times. But lefties who were exposed to the meme felt a resonance, as well: When the Administration stands accused of repeating untruths like a CD stuck and looping, it’s hard not to respond to appeals like the Bloke’s. Regardless of politics, the aesthetic attraction of Aussie Bloke’s story stemmed from the overwhelming implications of asking: What if it’s true?
This Crackpot Theory proved so powerful that it made its way into the penumbra of the mainstream: Watchers of the financial markets stumbled upon it when they tried to explain the swelling money supply. Connoisseurs of conspiracy theories flocked to it for its immediacy.
Towards the end, Aussie Bloke "outed" himself as Dr. Grant Gartrell, a retired Australian astronomer who’d published on comets. Turns out the real Gartrell is now a blueberry farmer and spelunker who’d been down in caves when the whole thing unfolded, according to a story on Rupert Murdoch’s news.com.au. Then someone claiming to have posted the original stories went online to claim he or she had set up the hoax as an object lesson. And then—maybe—retracted that claim of responsibility, possibly because the real Gartrell might have recourse to sue for defamation.
Naturally, a lot of paranoids believed neither the "real" Dr. Gartrell, nor the first retraction. Each Subbacultcha had its own take on which part of the story was disinformation. Each one looked at the sky in a poetic kind of way. But none of them could have been too surprised that rocks didn’t fall from the sky. After all, Andy Kaufman didn’t make good on his promise to return exactly ten years after his death on the 16th of May, either.