Did I ever tell you about the time I accidentally got retweeted by InfoWars and featured on conspiracy theory websites?
Well, do I have a story for you.
We lived in Beech Grove, Indiana, for ten years. Beech Grove is a small, incorporated city inside Indianapolis, just south of downtown. The city was originally a company town, built around a railroad repair facility.
St. Francis Hospital was built in Beech Grove in 1914. Actor Steve McQueen was born there in 1930. My friend Jessi was born there in 1981.
It was a happening place, obviously.
Even President Harry S. Truman visited Beech Grove once.
In 2012, the hospital closed. Services were transferred to the newer, more modern hospital a few miles down the road. I remember the giant red signs they put up over the ambulance entrance ramp. It felt sad to turn away people, but the hospital was just too old.
After it closed, we used the hospital’s massive parking lot for family walks, scooter races with the girls, and backgrounds for blog photo shoots. (Still very sorry for the years I tried to be a fashion blogger; please forgive me.)
After the hospital closed, it sat vacant. There were rumors of buyers, big plans, new owners, but they always fell through.
The hospital sat empty for years.
We lived about two blocks from the hospital. You could see the towering building easily from our yard. It was—by far—the biggest thing in town. Often when describing to someone where you lived, you used the hospital as your compass.
I live just east of the hospital.
I’m about three minutes from the hospital.
Beech Grove is a small town inside of a big city.
One night in May 2016, we went to bed like normal. The girls were snuggled into their bunk beds. Our dog was burrowed into a blanket at my feet. Everything was calm.
Until it wasn’t.
Around midnight, Chris and I woke to loud helicopters circling above our house and gunfire.
It sounded like our street was under attack.
I peeked cautiously out the window and saw red lights in the sky.
Slowly, neighbors came pouring out of their houses. We hesitantly wandered to the middle of the street in our pajamas and bathrobes. We stood in small groups, a few people called 911.
By this time, most of the noise was coming from the hospital. We could see flashing lights and what looked and sounded like explosions through the windows on the top floors. Gunfire, men yelling, helicopters overhead. It was loud and disorienting and we could not stop watching.
I had my phone with me. I got on Twitter to see if anyone was talking about what was happening or if the news was reporting anything.
About five minutes later, the sounds died down. The helicopters left. It was silent again.
Everyone stood on the street, stunned and staring at each other. It felt like a dream: no one really understood what had happened, but it was exciting and a nice night to stand on the street in our sweatpants talking to our neighbors.
After a few more minutes, word began to spread: 911 operators and some neighbors had been told ahead of time. There was going to be some police or military practice at the hospital that night. Don’t be alarmed. It was just a drill.
Except we were alarmed. No one had told us. No one felt unsafe—we were just confused, just startled out of bed in the middle of the night.
We slowly made our way back to our houses and back to bed.
The next morning, I woke up, got ready for work, sent the kids to school and daycare, got on with my day.
Then I got a text message from a friend, did I know I was on the news?
That’s when my middle-of-the-night sarcastic tweet started showing up everywhere.
Local news stations used a screenshot of my tweet in their stories about the commotion. Online media quoted my tweets in their articles.
It was—as we had first heard murmuring of the night before—a training exercise for the military.
Here’s a local news station’s coverage of the events: https://www.wrtv.com/news/call-6-investigators/beech-grove-residents-awoken-by-booms-gunshots
And then the conspiracy theory people showed up.
They started responding to my tweets, sharing them, using them on their websites.
In 2016, I wasn’t yet aware of the level of government mistrust and rampant misinformation floating around the dark corners of the internet. I knew InfoWars was extreme right-wing media, but I had no idea the level of darkness and lies I was being thrust into.
What was to me (and anyone who knew me or followed me) a joke, was treated as factual, fear-based information to other people. The websites took others’ tweets and used them too.
We weren’t under attack. There was no helicopter shot down. While we were startled, no one was scared or in danger. The best way I can describe it is it felt like we were in a movie: it was surreal. We were watching something that looked violent, but we weren’t scared. We were confused yet we all stood calmly on the street in our bathrobes casually chatting. I was mostly concerned the loud noises were going to wake my sleeping children, because THEN someone was going to be in trouble.
But the conspiracy theory people were just getting warmed up. Eventually, I stopped reading the tweets or conversations on Twitter. It was entertaining and silly and kinda unbelievable, but it was also boring and I wanted to move on.
Conspiracy theory media did not want to move on.
And then a FEMA camp got rolled into the story.
A FEMA CAMP. In my small city, in the middle of Indianapolis. That no one but very smart, in-the-know right-wing extremists knew about. The screenshot in green above is a picture of the railroad repair station I mentioned in the introduction. It’s now run by Amtrak and services hundreds of trains a year. St. Francis Hospital is about a mile from the train station. Nothing happened that night at the train station, but that doesn’t matter at all to the “news” reporter sharing this story. If you’d like to watch the whole 6-minute video, here’s the link: https://newsvideo.su/video/4330931
(Notes on the video: Glenn Beck apparently “investigated” and then de-bunked this theory. The video shows where the FEMA camp supposedly is, but it’s just a video of old Amtrak cars at the back of the train’s property. We would drive by these all the time on our way to church. Also, please be delighted with how he says my name as he credits the tweet. And finally, I know people who work here—at the Amtrak station—like normal guys who go to work and fix trains. This is not a FEMA camp. It feels ridiculous to even type that.)
Here’s why I share this story:
Because misinformation and half-truths and manipulated stories are rampant on the internet. And more and more people are believing them. I’ve lost friends and family members to the cult of conspiracy theories. It’s confusing and sad to watch.
But it’s real to them. They “did the research,” figured out the clues, got caught up in the mysteries that confirmed all the stories hinted at. They fell for all the tricks. They ignored confirmation bias, credible sources, and boundaries about Christ-like behavior. And we lost them.
For a while, I was dumbfounded by this. Then I moved to shock and embarrassment. Now I’m just sad. It all makes me so sad; people took advantage of them and they fell for it and now they’re in too deep. Things are falling apart and instead of understanding that NOTHING they’ve assured us would happen actually happened, they just double down with new predictions, new theories, new stories.
And none of it makes sense. None of it is rational. It’s become a sick obsession.
I read a great article by a game designer who explains all the alternative reality and theories behind the QAnon playmakers (because it’s not just a guy and definitely not a guy in a high-level government job). The article said:
The implications in the Q prompts are one-sided and designed to cast doubt, not offer proof. Once doubt is cast, it is incredibly hard to dispel.
It’s very hard to prove something doesn’t exist. You can’t prove there are no aliens for example. Aliens scientifically could exist so you will never be able to prove that they don’t. You can’t prove someone isn’t in a cult either. No matter what they say. Doubt can not be dispelled easily. It can be grown easily, however.
Conspiracy theories thrive on doubt. I saw it firsthand when the military showed up in the middle of the night on my street to do some exercises. The real explanation made perfect sense. We weren’t in danger. It started and stopped pretty quickly which makes sense for a training activity. A lot of people (just not us!) knew about it ahead of time.
But we cannot prove without a shadow of a doubt it wasn’t military practice to prepare for the FEMA camps getting ready to move in. Don’t pay attention to the details about Amtrak and the people who work there, that it’s been years and there is no FEMA camps, that the middle of the capital of Indiana is not a reasonable location to put a FEMA camp, or that the people spreading this “news” get half the information wrong.
Ignore all of that. Let it just create a *little* doubt in your mind.
And that’s all you need to get roped in to a conspiracy theory. It’s that simple. Doubt, like the article said, can be grown easily.
Being raised in the church, I was taught to guard my heart and mind. Mostly this was in relationship to the opposite sex and pornography. It was used to talk about sex and produce shame and help control things that felt dangerous (female bodies, for example).
But I think we raised a generation that didn’t understand “guarding your mind” could mean others things too. That you don’t dabble in lies and doubt. That you don’t spend time reading half-truths and poorly constructed stories meant to create fear and division. That we don’t share and promote things that “might” be true. That we don’t gossip or manipulate reality. That we don’t want to encourage a mistrust in others—others made in God’s image just like us.
Because when we do, it dulls our senses. We get away from God’s truth and decide we know our own. We mingle half-facts and Jesus, secrets and God. And what we get is anger, self-righteousness, pride, violence, condemnation, and isolation.
We didn’t guard our hearts and our minds, and we lost God in the research.
Jesus shows us what to do with doubt. In Matthew 4, Jesus is tempted in the wilderness. Satan whispers in his ear, lies meant to make him question what He knows, make Him question his Father, make him act in ways outside of God’s will.
And Jesus rebukes Satan. He tells him to leave. He doesn’t give him room to wiggle into His heart and mind. Jesus doesn’t allow for the entertainment of such things.
But what our conspiracy theory friends said was, “Tell me more.”
And along the way, we lost our integrity. Integrity says we don’t share information we aren’t sure is true. We don’t gossip or spread lies. So if we—as Jesus followers—aren’t 100% certain something is true, we shouldn’t be sharing it with others. Having doubts about something (a common conspiracy theory intro tactic) and knowing something is true are two very different things.
We didn’t guard our hearts or minds, and we lost our integrity.
We’re called to live “peaceful and quiet lives” (1 Timothy 2:2) and instead we got into the middle of violence and destruction and division and lies.
One day on the internet, I got pulled into some conspiracy theories on accident. And when I realized what was happening, I walked away. Turned off the notifications. Stopped checking my phone. Didn’t feed the beast.
But some of us went in on purpose. We kept asking for more and more and more and then we couldn’t stop. Addiction in its truest form, cloaked in the name of Jesus. We heard the whispers of doubt and instead of rebuking and turning away, we opened our hearts and minds for the sowing of deceit and deception.
And now some of us are so sick we can’t find our way out of it. The devil doesn’t need new tricks—we’re still falling for all his old ones.