Why Do Some People Believe the Earth is Flat?
Kelly Weill on What Draws People To Conspiracies
People turn to conspiracy theories in moments of instability. “Conspiracy theories are a natural reaction to social situations that elicit fear and uncertainty,” psychologist Jan-Willem van Prooijen writes. “Specifically, the more strongly people experience such aversive emotions, the more likely it is that they assign blame for distressing events to different groups.”
Trump, whose chaotic presidency was guided by some of the United States’ darkest tendences, might be seen as both a product and an accelerator of those paranoid conditions. He rose to political prominence while pushing a conspiracy theory that falsely claimed Barack Obama, the first Black president, was not born in the United States. Trump and other Western right-wing populists who won elections in the mid-2010s did so in a time of surging income inequality, accompanied by growing fears, on the right, of immigration.
Across the pond, following a sustained disinformation campaign that maligned Muslims and immigrants, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. A University of Cambridge study found that Trump and Brexit voters were much more likely than their opponents’ supporters to believe conspiracy theories about immigration, with nearly half of Trump and Brexit voters believing the government was hiding “the truth” about immigration.
Bans and moderation work—up to a point. Infowars suffered a massive blow when it lost its social media profiles and, subsequently, nearly three-quarters of its traffic. Anti-fascist activists often work to get neo-Nazis banned from popular websites, because disrupting their online activities and kicking them off these sites makes it harder for fascist types to recruit. When the video-sharing app TikTok blocked hashtags associated with QAnon in July 2020, it removed one of the most straightforward means for Q supporters to discover and network with their peers.TikTok can ban a hashtag, but it has less control over the feelings of fear and uncertainty that send us searching for alternative explanations.
But while Silicon Valley giants like YouTube can curb the spread of conspiracy theories by taking away their artificial algorithmic boost, big tech firms are unlikely to deliver us, as a species, from the meaning-making thought processes that misfire when we craft conspiracy theories. TikTok can ban a hashtag, but it has less control over the feelings of fear and uncertainty that send us searching for alternative explanations. And if we accept that the Facebooks of the world will never be perfect at moderation, it’s worth adopting one more paranoia to ask whether we’re giving them too much power in the hopes that they will flawlessly execute an impossible task.
Years ago, I started writing about Flat Earth as something close to a joke. I saved the most batshit comments I found in Flat Earth forums. I tweeted about factional rivalries playing out in conspiracy groups. When Trump announced the creation of a Space Force as a new military branch, I convinced my editors at the Daily Beast to let me interview the Flat Earth Society about the new organization, on the grounds that Flat Earthers generally think space is a hoax. My colleagues and I put a sarcastic 234567892 banner on the story and thought it was very funny, and years later—knowing that Flat Earth has torn families apart and that some Flat Earthers are neo-Nazis who make rap songs about killing people like my own Jewish family—I still find the 234567892 banner, and really the whole article, very funny. It’s Flat Earth, for Christ’s sake! How absurd!
I filed the Space Force story in a couple of hours and rushed out to catch a train to Washington, DC, where I was covering a march of much more explicit neo-Nazis, including one who’d recently threatened on the radio to murder me if I showed up. While I rode down the East Coast, I got a message from the Flat Earth Society, whom I’d just mocked in my online article. I was expecting an angry note, but the group had no ill words for me; they only wanted to point out a typo I’d missed. As my train sped toward Washington, I realized I was approaching a group of people that knew media coverage could hurt them while taking editing notes from a group with no such fears.At the risk of giving Flat Earthers exactly what they want, we need to pay attention to them.
Since the beginning, Flat Earthers have made the case that media helps their cause. Newspapers gave Rowbotham free publicity by mocking his upcoming lectures. He encouraged the combative relationship, inviting scientists to attend and make a scene. When the Flat Earth Society relaunched as a web forum a century and a half later, in 2009, its leaders cited recent media attention—news articles and historian Christine Garwood’s book Flat Earth—as one reason for the reboot. “In the past two years, there has been a major book published about the Flat Earth movement as well as articles on the BBC website and Fox News which included interviews with one of the Society’s most prominent members, James McIntyre,” leader Daniel Shenton said in a press release about the society’s grand reopening.
Since its surge in 2015, Flat Earth theory has inspired television specials, multiple documentaries, and more articles than I can count. And yet, at the risk of giving Flat Earthers exactly what they want, we need to pay attention to them. Movements at the peripheries do not always stay on the sidelines. We need to understand Flat Earth if we are to have any hope of finding our way out of it. Fortunately, some former Flat Earthers have already found life on a post-Flat planet.
A home improvement project left Jose Gonzales struggling to repair his sense of reality. While fixing up his Florida home in 2017, he entertained himself by listening to YouTube videos about outer space. He’d click a video about black holes and let it play in the background while he worked. His story is so common in Flat Earth circles that you can probably guess its outcome. Based on his interest in cosmology, YouTube started recommending Flat Earth videos, he told me. Eventually, he relented to the algorithm and pressed PLAY on one of the recommendations. That first click changed his world.
“Since the first day I clicked on the first video, I couldn’t take it off my mind,” Gonzales told me of Flat Earth theory. “The only thing I thought about was the shape of the earth, the science. I was like, holy cow. I was looking into the skies like “This is all a big lie.’”
The theory was all-consuming, Craig Pennock, a British man, told me of his similar YouTube-based conversion that same year.
“I’d always been sort of conspiracy-minded,” Pennock said. “I’ve believed in other things like chemtrails—really deep down the rabbit hole. Flat Earth popped up, and I just sucked it straight in. All it took was a few YouTube videos, and I was hooked.”
Debunking Flat Earth is relatively easy in a good-faith debate. You can watch a ship disappear hull-first behind the horizon as it sails away, or watch the sun set the same way, degree by degree behind the earth’s curve as the planet spins toward the dark. You can watch the orbits of stars in the night sky and observe that those slow paths—different in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres—are impossible on a Flat Earth map, which would require stars to streak wildly across the sky at the planet’s outer edges. And if you believe in outer space, and don’t think NASA is a satanic organization, you can peruse pictures of the globe planet captured from space.
Psychologists working in the cult-exit field offer the same initial piece of advice for people trying to pry a loved one from a controlling group’s grasp: Keep in communication with that person. Remind them that another world exists outside of their faith community. This, in itself, can be difficult, especially when the group preaches ideals that are baffling, even immoral, to the person on the outside. But Gonzales and Pennock, who both went all in on Flat Earth and found their way out, describe Globe Earth friendships as the only thing that brought them back to Earth.
Excerpted from Off The Edge: Flat Earthers, Conspiracy Culture, and Why People Will Believe Anything by Kelly Weill. © Copyright 2022. Published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.