The greased slide from YouTube to conspiracy
Over a kaleidoscope of time-lapse videos of landscapes and computer-generated images of celestial bodies, a man speaks off-screen.
One. The horizon is always flat.
Two. Water always seeks its level.
The litany of averment is oddly soothing. Hypnotic, even.
Three. Bridges, canals, and railways are built in straight, horizontal lines, with no trace of curvature…
“Wow, I never thought of that,” thinks the person watching the video.
“Wow, I never thought of it like that. Oh my gosh, that doesn’t add up. Whoa, wait a minute here, back up.”
Forty-five. There is no blustering, restless wind and no sensation of motion sickness that would suggest the planet is rotating. Forty-six. Polaris can be always found directly above the North Pole. Forty-seven…
Later, when a researcher stops them at a Flat Earth conference, the anonymous viewer describes what they felt when they first watched “200 Proofs the Earth is Not a Spinning Ball.”
The Flat Earther says:
“And your mind goes 90 million miles per hour. And you don’t get sleep because you feel duped, and you feel lied to, and you’re pissed off. And, so, you go on a hunt, almost like a witchhunt. And to find the truth in, like, why are these people lying to us? Like, that just gave me the chills because it, it, it was that intense.”
To most people, Flat Earth is a funny idea. Add four elephants and a giant space-turtle and you’ll have the basic worldbuilding premise of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.
But for two percent of Americans, Flat Earth is a real thing. They believe in it zealously. And once they come out as Flat Earthers, they are willing to spread the word.
Since 2014, YouTube has seen a growing number of videos purporting the Flat Earth theory. By 2017, Flat Eartherism evolved into a full-fledged movement with supporters all around the… globe.
It’s easy to make fun of Flat Earthers, but it is difficult to understand why some choose to believe in a flat, geocentric, and stationary Earth. Alex Olshansky and his colleagues from Texas Tech University – Robert M. Peaslee and Asheley R. Landrum – attempted to map the Flat Earthers’ world.
Olshansky went to the 2nd Annual Flat Earth International Conference. He recorded 20-minute interviews with 20 people. They were 39 years old on average, most of them white and male. All participants received a 10 USD gift card as an incentive.
Here’s what Olshansky and colleagues discovered.
In the rabbit-hole of conspiracy theories, you don’t find Flat Earth; Flat Earth finds you. If you watch enough conspiracy videos on 9/11 or the moon landing, YouTube algorithms will eventually spew out a Flat Earth video in your recommendation feed.
Going from a “Ball Earther” to a Flat Earther doesn’t happen overnight. Some people spend months seeking and processing information.
“I’m not a Flat Earther by any means after watching one YouTube video, but that is enough to make me question what I thought I knew, and then to look further for information,” said one.
Even though not all people come across Flat Earth theory on the Internet – some are introduced to it by partners, family, and friends – YouTube is the main culprit. Flat Earthers think the video sharing website is like “a big library, except you don’t read the books, you listen to it audio.”
Flat Eartherism might seem quite harmless, but there is a darker side to it. Believing in conspiracy theories goes hand in hand with a distrust of authority and expert opinions. Those who fall prey to conspiracy thinking come to resent science, governments, and institutions. With its global anti-vax and anti-mask movements, the Covid-19 pandemic makes us painfully aware of the detrimental impact other people’s conspiracies can have on our own lives.
Technically, Flat Earthers don’t have to believe in other conspiracy theories, but many do. All of them are vulnerable to conspiracy thinking. Internet algorithms make sure it stays that way.
One video leads to another. When you jump into that rabbit hole, there is no going back.
“Once You Go Flat, You Can’t Go Back.”
As Olshansky and colleagues observe, embracing Flat Eartherism is a gradual process of deep personal change. It’s a conversion – the Flat Earthers adopt a new identity. They feel the enlightenment that often accompanies a life-changing transition.
For some, the journey to Flat Earth is greased by the (pseudo)scientific arguments. These Flat Earth converts say:
“It’s like, you know, water always finds its level. It always does. And then you find out that the pictures from space are all CGI. They admit it. Then you find out we’ve never left low Earth orbit. They admit it. NASA admits it.”
But for others, it’s the Biblical arguments that do the trick.
Some Christians find a reinforcement of their religious beliefs. As one of the study participants puts it:
“To be true and honest with you, I went through the [Bible] and . . . it was such an epiphany for me . . . [Flat Earth] puts God back in focus, mainly. Because if you really look at the fact that if we are not a heliocentric model, we are not a spinning globe and all that, we do live on a flat plane, then, uh, . . . big bang theory’s out the window. Evolution’s out the window. So, where does that leave us? That leaves us with how in the world did we get here? Who brought us here? Why are we here for? Where are we going after this?”
In times of uncertainty and rapid progress, a vision of a flat world snugly nestled under a celestial dome and created by an all-knowing god brings Flat Earthers reassurance. The thought of being stranded on a giant, rotating rock that travels through a vast, indifferent void as it orbits a blazing star is just too much for some people to handle.
Underneath these YouTube and Bible-fueled conspiracies, there seems to be a more general longing for meaning and purpose.
“I used to believe that we were just out here spinning around. Now that I know that . . . the foundation of that belief is false, I can look at how I feel now, and I can attribute it to the fact that we are not alone, and that we’re not spinning around purposeless . . . that we have purpose . . .”
It’s easy to make fun of Flat Earthers, but this soulful longing is hardly a laughing matter – and the dark societal implications of conspiracy thinking are even less funny.
Adrianna Zabrzewska wrote this based on Alex Olshansky, Robert M. Peaslee & Asheley R. Landrum’s 2020 article “Flat-Smacked! Converting to Flat Eartherism,” Journal of Media and Religion, 19:2, 46-59, DOI: 10.1080/15348423.2020.1774257
The italicized fragments are loosely based on Flat Earth YouTube videos, including the one mentioned in the text. However, they are not direct quotes.
The statistics on US Flat Earthers in Olshansky et al. (p. 47) come from YouGov 2018 report. According to the report, 5 percent of Americans are uncertain about the Earth’s shape.
Since 2014, YouTube has seen. . . – Based on: Paolillo, J. C. (2018). “The flat earth phenomenon on YouTube.” First Monday, 23, 12. https://doi.org/10.5210/fm.v23i12.8251, cited in Olshansky et al., p. 47.
By 2017, Flat Eartherism evolved into. . . – According to Olshansky et al., p. 47.
“Wow, I never thought of that” and “And your mind goes. . .” – p. 52
“I’m not a Flat Earther. . .” – p. 51
“. . .a big library. . .” – p. 53
“Once You Go Flat . . .” – p. 50
“It’s like, you know, water. . .” – p. 50
“To be true and honest. . .” and “You can’t believe in Flat Earth. . .” – p. 54
“I used to believe. . .” – p. 54
Copyright Adrianna Zabrzewska 2021: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs CC BY-NC-ND