Flat Earth, YouTube and community: how did we get here?

It started small, with meetings attended by only three people. They got used to being mocked and to be called the “crazy conspiracy guys”. Friendships and relationships were broken, but they stay strong. Since it went online 14 years ago, The Flat Earth Society Forum has 24.700 members and the Flat Earth Society Twitter account has, at the moment, 93.200 followers.

Universal Zetetic Society, Samuel Shenton’s International Flat Earth Research Society and now Flat Earth Society. “We continue the age-old tradition of questioning the Round Earth doctrine and challenging authorities”, it’s written on their website. The movement caught fire around 2015/2016 when a series of videos were published on YouTube, attracting a lot of attention. “There were plenty who say these were seminal moments in their journey to being a flat earther”, explains Michael Marshall, project director of the Good Thinking Society in the U.K., a small pro-science and anti-pseudoscience charity to BBC. “They saw those videos and they thought ‘that’s it, this makes total sense to me’”, says Marshall about Eric Dubay’s 200 proofs (being “the horizon looks flat” the first one) and Mark Sargent’s 14 videos.

Besides that, several public figures such as the rapper-singer Bobby Ray Simmons Jr (B.o.B.), NBA player Kyrie Irving (even though he later said it was a joke)and the TV personality Tila Tequila have assumed to be flat earthers on social media.

What is the Flat Earth Theory?

At first, it seems like a joke. But it isn’t. The flat earthers believe that the Earth is (that’s right) flat. According to their leading theory, Earth is a disc with the Arctic Circle in the centre and Antarctica is a 45-meter ice wall, surrounding all of it. This wall is the responsibility of NASA and other agencies and its goal is to prevent people from climbing over or falling off the disc, “holds in our oceans and helps protect us from whatever lies beyond”, it’s written on The Flat Earth Society Forum.

Flat earthers don’t have a justification for the reason why the governments would lie about the true shape of the Earth but their guess is financial related. For them, it likely began during “Cold War’s ‘Space Run’, in which the U.S.S.R. and USA were obsessed with beating each other into space to the point that each faked their accomplishments”. The goal? “Keep pace with the others supposed achievements”. After the war, it kept going because of greed related motivations rather than “political gains”. This way they opened “tremendous amounts of funds to embezzle as it only takes a fraction of the total budget to fake space travel”. Or so do they believe.

Some people also believe that the rest of the planets are flat. But for the majority that thinks they are round, the explanation is as simple as “because they’re not Earth”. According to The Flat Earth Society Forum, “the existence of the flat Earth has a major effect on its surroundings” but allows “different classes of entity to exist near it”. Bottom line, there is no reason to believe that Earth needs to be the same as the rest of the planets.

Probably, flat earthers’ first reaction to this theory was a “what a load of nonsense this is” – exactly what happened with Dave, a flat earther interviewed by BBC. However, it seems they eventually accepted these arguments at some point. But why? Asheley Landrum, an assistant professor at Texas Tech University, explained to BBC how this happens.

How can a “this is ridiculous” become a “yes, Earth is flat”?

“First they reject the flat Earth videos. They assume its misinformation”, clarifies Landrum. The problem is, afterwards, “they decide they’re going to debunk them [flat Earth videos]” by making their own. Still according to Landrum, this implies watching more flat Earth videos, doing research and “before they know it, they too have come to accept that the Earth is flat”.

Another thing that helped to convert people was talking to otherswho believe that the Earth is round because these people “had never thought about it before” and “just assumed in a sort quite an arrogant way that they must know better than anybody who’s ever thought about it and come to a different conclusion” (such as flat earthers), explains Marshall in another interview to Scientific American. “They were stomping into these arguments saying, well, what about photos of the earth from space and what about this? And what about ships going over the horizon thinking, well this is the gotcha, but not realizing that those were the first things they’d thought about”, continues. Due to this arrogance of round earth believers, flat earthers were winning arguments and “were really converting even more people into believing it”.

How did YouTube help to spread this theory?

“YouTube without a shadow of a doubt is the main source of my awakening to flat Earth. Every single person I know who’s a flat earther has come across it the same way that I came across it”, shares Dave. “They’ve obviously been looking for certain things”, like“9/11 conspiracies”, exemplifies Dave,and “it always led onto the flat Earth”. In Dave’s case, he decided to give up television and turned to YouTube for “alternative information”. He was particularly interested in researching the Moon landings. Five years ago, Dave started seeing recommendations coming up on his YouTube feed for flat Earth videos.

This is due to the YouTube recommendation engine – an engine that Guillaume Chaslot, a former software engineer at YouTube, helped develop. The main goal of this technology is recommending similar videos to the ones that the user previously saw, keeping people hooked. “[These videos] make you watch more content, they make you see more ads”, explains the software engineer. And that’s why “flat Earth was much more recommended than videos explaining why the Earth is round”, concludes Chaslot.

“It can be a very lonely place”, shares Dave. “When you come across the realization you don’t live on a spinning ball, who do you talk to about it?”, asks. And YouTube works its magic again by helping to create a community where flat earthers could find like-minded people. Since these ideas may be “quite socially isolating”, people turn to “this platform”, this “very personal feeling space”, as Marshall explains. Dave is the real-life confirmation of this, with lost friendships and relationships going “downhill”. “But I’ve gained a lot more friends in the long term. That’s where the flat Earth community is a big bonus because you can actually meet people on your level and talk about the things you can’t normally talk about”, concludes.

According to BBC, the community is growing even though YouTube is recommending these videos to fewer people and making them harder to find. But can we ever go back? Or are we even converting more people just by talking about the topic?

Examples of beliefs:

  • Photos of the globe are photoshopped
  • GPS devices are rigged to make airplane pilots think they are flying in straight lines around a sphere when they are actually flying in circles above a disc
  • “The world looks flat, the bottoms of clouds are flat, the movement of the sun; these are all examples of your senses telling you that we do not live on a spherical heliocentric world”
  • “The earth isn’t pulled into a sphere because the force known as gravity doesn’t exist or at least exists in a greatly diminished form than is commonly taught. The earth is constantly accelerating up at a rate of 32 feet per second squared (or 9.8 meters per second squared). (…) It is constantly accelerating upwards being pushed by a universal accelerator (UA) known as dark energy or aetheric wind.”
  • The United Nations emblem closely resembles the flat Earth map
  • “The best example of flat earth proof is the Bedford Level Experiment. In short, this was an experiment performed many times on a six-mile stretch of water that proved the surface of the water to be flat. It did not conform to the curvature of the earth that round earth proponents teach.”

Rute Cardoso

Sources:

https://www.livescience.com/24310-flat-earth-belief.html

https://www.theflatearthsociety.org/forum/index.php?action=stats

https://wiki.tfes.org/The_Flat_Earth_Wiki

https://www.nydailynews.com/sports/photos/nydn-history-s-most-famous-flat-earth-believers-athletes-celebrities-and-ancient-greeks-20190418-photogallery.html

https://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode/flat-earthers-what-they-believe-and-why/

Twitter (Flat Earth)

https://www.bbc.com/reel/video/p07h3yc0/flat-earth-how-did-youtube-help-spread-a-conspiracy-theory-

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