A strange conspiracy theory is being blamed for canceling an annual fundraising festival in a Northern California town.
The Sacramento Bee reported Thursday that two fundraisers hosted by the Grass Valley Charter School Foundation had to be canceled when threats of a terror plot appeared on Twitter using a tweet from former FBI Director James Comey.
#FiveJobsIveHad was a hashtag trending at the end of April. Many people participated in it, some using the opportunity to show the low-level jobs they had before their top positions. Others used it as a way to highlight their experience in the service industry.
Comey listed his five occupations:
1. Grocery store clerk
2. Vocal soloist for church weddings
4. Strike-replacement high school teacher
5. FBI Director, interrupted
A Twitter user took the letters in the national hashtag to spell out “Jihad” and the capital letters of each numbered post to spell out GVCSF, the acronym for Grass Valley Charter School Foundation.
“In the current political and social climate, schools and communities must take into consideration matters never before imagined,” organizers for the festival said in a statement canceling the event.
“It’s quite difficult to talk about …. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s pretty nutty,” said foundation president Wendy Willoughby. She said canceling the event left her “heartbroken.”
She noted that she got a rush of questions from citizens across the county when the announcement was made.
“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.”
Willoughby noted that even if the conspiracy theory was unbelievable, she feared it could “Mobilize unstable people to take action.” She asked how she and the school could “contend with a threat you don’t even know is there?”
Supporters maintained it was a “far-reaching connection” and claimed there was really “zero threat,” but organizers opted for caution over the fundraiser.
“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.
Elementary school principal Scott Maddock said that the conspiracy theory spread quickly and they started receiving a barrage of emails. Traffic was up about 1,000 percent, he said.
Conspiracy theory researcher Mike Rothschild called the threat “so much crap” likely coming from the bowls of 4Chan or believers of QAnon – a far-right conspiracy theory group that thinks a secret “deep state” plot is out to get 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 — the huge conspiracy in front of you. It sucks you in and it gets harder to separate fact from fiction.”
“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.”
Tickets to the event are being refunded.