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The Twitter conspiracy that sabotaged a small-town California festival: ‘It’s pretty nutty’

Organizers canceled a fundraiser for Grass Valley Charter School set for Saturday in the Sierra foothills after an online conspiracy theory went viral and created safety concerns.
Organizers canceled a fundraiser for Grass Valley Charter School set for Saturday in the Sierra foothills after an online conspiracy theory went viral and created safety concerns. Sacramento Bee file

Organizers say a knot of online conspiracy theories that their tiny Northern California charter school’s fundraiser would be the target of a terror plot forced them to cancel their annual festival this weekend out of safety concerns.

Shelved was the Blue Marble Jubilee – one of two annual fundraisers put on by the Grass Valley Charter School Foundation for its downtown elementary school. The festival had been set for Saturday in the Sierra foothills of Nevada County, about an hour’s drive northeast of Sacramento.

“In the current political and social climate, schools and communities must take into consideration matters never before imagined,” the festival’s organizers said in a statement last week announcing they were scuttling the event.

And it all started with a tweet from former FBI Director James Comey.

“It’s quite difficult to talk about .... It doesn’t make any sense. It’s pretty nutty,” said Wendy Willoughby, the foundation’s president and one of the festival’s organizers on Tuesday, who said making the call to cancel the event left her “heartbroken.”

The former director, now author and speaker, who launched investigations into former Secretary of State and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and President Donald Trump played the popular game, “Five Jobs I’ve Had,” listing his one-time occupations on Twitter: grocery store clerk; vocal soloist for church weddings; chemist; strike-replacement high school teacher; and, finally, “FBI director, interrupted,” with the hashtag #FiveJobsIHad.

Conspiracy theorists sliced and diced the Comey tweet to create the words “Five Jihad” from the hashtag; and grouped the first letters of each of the jobs he held – GVCSF – to cement their theory: that Grass Valley Charter School Foundation and its popular jubilee on the grounds of the Nevada County Fairgrounds were targeted for trouble via a covert terror attack leaked by the former FBI director.

A barrage of questions from Nevada County and across the country quickly followed, Willoughby said.

“We had a combination of followers trying to find if we were legitimate and others who follow this madness and were concerned. They felt we were being targeted by Comey and that they alerted us to the disastrous event that would befall the festival,” Willoughby said. “Many put up videos (or) went to photos on our website – there were photos of our children. It became very personal, very frightening.”

CRACKPOT.jpg
Organizers of a Grass Valley charter school fundraiser say conspiracy theories that went viral on social media about tweet from former FBI Director James Comey forced them to cancel festival in Grass Valley. The school was neither named nor referenced in the post, organizers said, calling the purported link a “far-reaching connection” that “poses zero threat to our school and community.” Twitter

“In today’s world, based on recent events, regardless if it is debunked ... it mobilizes unstable people to take action,” Willoughby continued. “How do you contend with a threat that you don’t even know is there?

The school was neither named nor referenced in the post, organizers said, calling the purported link a “far-reaching connection” that “poses zero threat to our school and community.” Grass Valley and Nevada County authorities quickly determined that the event was not under threat, but organizers held firm to the cancellation out of what they said was “an abundance of caution.”

“It seems odd that ours would be the first that came up (in an internet search), but they gradually made their way to our upcoming events and it developed into this,” Willoughby said.

The resulting fallout tried Scott Maddock, the charter elementary school’s principal. There is no contingency plan, Maddock said, for a conspiracy theory linking a former FBI director and a series of random letters to a terror plot against your school.

Developing one for a suddenly canceled event that represents one of the school’s most important money makers is nearly as challenging, he said.

“This is one of the most frustrating things I’ve dealt with as far as being an administrator....It has been a huge weight. There wasn’t a lot of sleep, there was a lot of stress,” Maddock said. “Not because we thought there was a threat to the school or the site, but that we were tied to this conspiracy theory through this acronym and that that would bring the wrong crowd to a fun day of kids’ games, music and food. That was reason enough to cancel.”

The Comey tweet appeared April 28. By April 29, a person who follows the theories and ideas tweeted out the dissected version and it went viral from there that Monday. Email traffic to the school soared, Maddock said. The rumor, he said, was akin to a lightning strike.

“The rumor was attached to our school pretty quickly after the post,” Maddock said. “We started receiving emails from around the country. Our email traffic was up about 1,000 percent. This was such a lightning strike. There was nothing we could do about it.”

Mike Rothschild, a conspiracy theory researcher based in Southern California, shed light on the conspiracy in an April 29 post at his website, themikerothschild.com, calling the theories “raw, uncut nonsense” for believers of QAnon – the far-right conspiracy theory that lays out a secret “deep state” plot against Trump and his supporters.

“This theory is so incredibly poorly conceived, it’s a wonder anyone believes it,” Rothschild said. “It’s just so much crap, but it taps into our need for secret knowledge. It’s why QAnon exists. It’s puzzling out the huge conspiracy in front of you. It sucks you in and it gets harder to separate fact from fiction.”

Rothschild posted tweeted responses to what conspiracy theorists called a “possible decode” of the Comey tweet, including one from an @StormIsUponUs that contained a not so veiled warning to Comey: “Nothing better happen at Grass Valley Charter School during their Blue Marble Jubilee on May 11, Jim.”

Rothschild says people’s belief in conspiracies is usually harmless, satisfying our need to find patterns, uncover secrets, connect the dots.

But the concocted plot against the foothill school event is “weird even for QAnon,” he said Wednesday. “It’s harassment. It’s a step down into the swamp. This feels like a real-world consequence.”

The speed with which the online conspiracy evolved and the school’s decision to take the event off the calendar also exposed the dark depths of internet conspiracies and their destructive effect on the public space, he said. People stoking these theories online are “doing anything they can to gin up the weirdest stuff. It goes really fast,” he said.

“It really injects a moral panic in mundane, everyday things. It really just freaks people out over nothing. It forces people to alter their behavior,” Rothschild said. “These are pseudo-concerned people who are really just scaring other people. They really think they’re the good guys. But what they think of as positive actions are really just making people’s lives more difficult.”

Now the charter school foundation is left without one of its main money makers, a festival that Willoughby said “values our community and shows respect for the natural world. That has been taken down by the opposite of those ideals.”

Tickets for the scheduled Saturday festival will be refunded, she said.

“We are parent volunteers. We do this because we love our school,” Willoughby said of the festival. “We felt we did the right thing. As an individual, I say would put my shoulder to the grindstone and forge on. But as an organizer, I don’t think anyone would come to that decision.”

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Darrell Smith covers courts and California news for The Sacramento Bee. He joined The Bee in 2006 and previously worked at newspapers in Palm Springs, Colorado Springs, Colo., and Marysville. A Sacramento Valley native, Smith was born and raised at Beale Air Force Base, near Marysville.


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