John Bartus

A horrific story from last week was the sad tale of the man who self-immolated outside Donald Trump’s hush-money trial in New York City. While news cameras were rolling and reporters tried to give the latest updates, 37-year-old Max Azzerello set himself ablaze. According to news sources, the St. Augustine, Florida resident was consumed by conspiracy theories and decided on this drastic action to “draw attention” to his beliefs.

Mr. Azzerello had been protesting at a park near the courthouse all week. Before self-immolating, he published a manifesto online that included conspiracy theories stating that “the U.S. government and world economy are near collapse and that cryptocurrency is a Ponzi scheme designed to help take it all down.” He claimed that Mr. Trump and President Biden were in on the conspiracy, and that, together, they were “about to fascist coup us.” He also referred to New York University as a “mob front” and insinuated that former President George W. Bush and former Vice President Al Gore were also in on the conspiracy. And he tossed a lot of conspiracy theory pamphlets on the ground just before he lit himself up.

It seems that no one or nothing is immune from conspiracy theories. The recent Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse in Baltimore — resulting from a legitimate accident — was the target of conspiracy theorists hours after it happened. People blamed a cyber-attack, the Obamas, Israel, even a ship captain under the influence of a COVID-19 vaccine. Some social media users suggested that diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives were linked to the bridge collapse, posting that more qualified candidates were passed over for consideration in order to meet hiring mandates, and that this somehow contributed to the accident.

I recently wrote about the Taylor Swift/Travis Kelce/Super Bowl conspiracy theories being pushed by everyone from Alex Jones to Vivek Ramaswamy. And my Facebook news feed often features posts from pages dedicated to gems like “The Moon Landing Hoax,” “Chemtrails Are Real,” “9/11 Was an Inside Job” and “The Earth is Flat.” I swear I’m not making this up. And I have no idea why Facebook’s bots keep throwing up those garbage pages in my feed when I have never clicked through to any of those nutjobs’ manifestos.

I’ve written columns about conspiracy theories (and those who believe them) before. It’s amazing just how quickly a crazy alternate reality can spring up from an event in the news. While some have a financial motive for spreading misinformation (like Alex Jones selling doomsday survival kits), others do it perhaps simply because they don’t trust any media outlet. And maybe some just do it because they can. But posting this kind of nonsense can lead to more horrific and disastrous results.

I have no idea what was going through Mr. Azzerello’s mind as he was contemplating his final course of action. I can’t even imagine the thought process that led him to dousing himself with a flammable liquid and then lighting himself on fire. What mental illness possibly could have prompted a healthy young individual to stand on a New York City street, burning, until he collapsed on the ground in agony?

Mr. Azzerello’s story is very sad indeed. His paranoia and delusions led him to take his own life, in the most public and horrific way possible. Mr. Azzerello’s mental illness is what brought on his suicide, make no mistake. But it was likely hastened by the culture of the Disinformation Age in which we live. 

It’s sad that so many of us will believe the ramblings of online provocateurs and take them as fact, while legitimate sourced and fact-checked media outlets are deemed untrustworthy. But why trust the people whose jobs are to report facts as opposed to the conjectures of any idiot on Facebook?

– Catch John live Thursdays at Sparky’s Landing, Friday at Isla Bella, this Saturday at the Leadership Monroe County Graduation, Sundays at Skipjack Tiki Bar, and Monday at Havana Jack’s. Find his music anywhere you download or stream your music. •

John Bartus
Very few towns or cities could ever claim that their Mayor was a smokin' hot guitar player. The island city of Marathon in the Florida Keys is one of those towns. While politics is a temporary call to service, music is a life sentence. John Bartus, a more-than-four-decade full-time professional musician, singer, and songwriter, continues to raise the bar with his groundbreaking solo acoustic show. It’s easy to catch John on one of his more than 200 shows a year throughout the Keys on his Perpetual Island Tour. His CD releases include After The Storm, Keys Disease 10th Anniversary Remaster, and Live From the Florida Keys Vol. 2. John’s music is available wherever you download or stream your music.