Cult of misinformation
Camp Fire lasers and other beliefs rooted in vulnerability
As the Camp Fire burned last November, a startling conspiracy theory spread with the flames that added a sci-fi element to the real-life terror and chaos on the Ridge—that the blaze was intentionally started by blue laser beams fired from helicopters, specifically targeting homes and vehicles.
The masterminds behind this terrible act, depending on which YouTube video you watch or with whom you talk, could be anything from the Rothschilds to Big Cannabis corporations to Satan himself. But by far, the suspect most often named is the U.S. government.
Fueled by doctored or improperly identified photos and pseudo-scientific “experts” sharing their “evidence,” the laser theory is still being propagated via far-right bloggers, conservative fringe talk radio and, most effectively, YouTube. In one video posted just days after the fire started titled “Genocidal California Fire Operations"—which garnered tens of thousands of views before being taken down just last week—an unidentified female narrator shared aerial videos of Paradise after the town burned.
“That’s not a wildfire—that looks like it was hit with a laser beam,” she said, her voice dripping with knowing authority and rage. “Common sense should at least beg questions in people’s minds when they see what I’m showing you right now.”
However, cult expert and retired Chico State professor Janja Lalich believes it’s a breakdown in common sense that leads to fervent belief in such theories. “[Conspiracies] are extremely popular now, and it’s quite similar to the prevalence of cults in our country and around the world.
“As the world has gotten more complex, people are looking for solutions, and America has a culture that looks for the quick fix,” Lalich said. “People will latch onto something that provides them a framework for understanding the world, even if it defies logic, science and critical thought.”
The idea that California’s recent deadly and destructive wildfires were caused by malevolent forces wielding directed energy weapons wasn’t sparked by the Camp Fire, but began to proliferate when the Tubbs Fire ravaged Santa Rosa in October 2017.
Tracing the theory back to its original source is like trying to find the longest noodle in a dumpster full of spaghetti. Online videos, some with hundreds of thousands of views, touch on directed energy weapons—some claim lasers also started the Notre Dame Cathedral fire—and offer interwoven theories about why and by whom these attacks were perpetrated. One theory circulating by word-of-mouth in Butte County—largely in pot-growing circles—is that large cannabis companies will benefit from the disaster by burning out small growers and acquiring cheap, fertile land for their operations. Another theory is that property owners are being dislocated to allow construction of California’s controversial high-speed rail project.
The most widespread and popular theories revolve around something called Agenda 21.
In reality, Agenda 21 is a nonbinding United Nations action plan developed in 1992 to encourage sustainable environmental practices, but the plan has been the subject of odd theories and conservative ire since its inception. The anti-Agenda 21 sentiment is particularly strong in rural Northern California, where some residents see efforts to limit mining, agriculture and logging—as well as to create unpopulated wildlands and protect endangered species—as an attack on their way of life.
“The idea of Agenda 21 isn’t a conspiracy theory, it is a real plan by the U.N. for what is now known to be world domination,” said Paul Preston, a Yuba City-based broadcaster whose Agenda 21 Radio show—broadcast on AM radio and online—focuses on conspiracies. “They’re using environmentalism and the notion of sustainability to destroy sovereign states and boundaries so you have one borderless world.”
Preston said he’s on the fence about laser attacks during the Camp Fire, though that hasn’t prevented him from sharing the theory on air. He said he received at least a dozen calls from Ridge residents during the fire saying they saw blue lasers. After spending 23 days on the scene of the Camp Fire, he concluded it’s “suspicious” and “very odd,” citing burn patterns and the flames’ extreme temperatures. (The latter detail is along the same lines as 9/11 Truthers’ claim that fire can’t melt steel beams.)
Preston said he invited researchers from “a very prestigious private university” to the burn site and that they found suspicious evidence. However, he declined to name the institution until they “got back to him with some official results.”
Lalich, who has written books about cults, elaborated on why people of all education levels buy into such outlandish ideas: “In a moment of vulnerability, even someone who’s intelligent and curious might see something that for some reason resonates with them. Then they go online and find a community of other people who believe this, too, which reinforces their beliefs.”
These beliefs can be hurtful to fire survivors, she said, and cause even more damage by contributing to a rise in extremism.
“It creates this us-versus-them mentality, where one group believes they have all the answers and only they know what’s really going on. That leads to extremist viewpoints and, potentially, extremist action. Most of these theories are formed around paranoia. Combined, that’s a perfect mix for violent action.”