clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Remaking the world in their own image: The rise of flat Earth conspiracists in the age of YouTube

Photo Illustration by Michelle Budge

SALT LAKE CITY — Mark Sargent believes the Earth is flat, and he thinks you should too. To hear Sargent tell it, soon enough everyone will realize that the idea of a round earth is part of a global conspiracy.

There are good reasons for academics, airplane pilots and government officials to keep the real shape of the Earth a secret, Sargent says. But the time has come for the truth to be revealed.

As the leading subject in the recent Netflix documentary “Behind the Curve” (which explores the flat Earth movement), and the creator of a YouTube channel with more than 80,000 subscribers (Flat Earth Clues), Sargent is the planet’s go to expert for those who wonder about its shape.

Thanks to evangelists like him, the number of people who believe the Earth is flat is growing.

While the majority of Americans still believe the world is round, a YouGov survey conducted last year found only 66% of millennials are certain of the fact. Most of those who firmly believe the Earth is flat only came to the conclusion in the last few years, according to the survey.

It is just one of a number of conspiracy theories that have been proliferating: Pearl Harbor wasn’t bombed, Jeffrey Epstein didn’t die by suicide, the Holocaust didn’t happen, and vaccines cause autism, to name just a few. The campaign against vaccines has been so effective that the CDC reported 1,276 cases of measles in 2019, the greatest outbreak since 1992.

Misinformation and conspiracy theories are far from new, but social media has allowed anyone and everyone to share and amplify them. The spread of conspiracy theories online is a kind of democratization of knowledge, says Asheley Landrum, a professor at Texas Tech who has been conducting research on the flat Earth movement. The idea of a flat Earth took off on YouTube. Anti-vaccination groups proliferated on Facebook. The sinister “Pizzagate” conspiracy on 4chan, a website described as the “grimiest” part of the internet.

Disseminating information to the masses used to be hard. You could publish a book, but first you’d have to sell it to a publisher to print it. Television, radio, and newspapers all had (and still have) high barriers to entry with high standards of verification, regulations and libel laws.

But anyone can spread their ideas on the internet. All you need is a free account on YouTube, access to a computer or phone, and a desire to push your thoughts and feelings into the world. Rather than trusting scientists, academics, government officials and other traditional sources of reliable information, people are increasingly turning online.

Alex Jones, who claimed Robert Mueller is a demon and the government has the ability to control the weather, insisted so vehemently and frequently that the Sandy Hook shooting was a hoax that the victims’ parents sued Jones for defamation. Jones gathered such a large audience he started to appear in the mainstream media (he’s featured prominently in a recent issue of The New York Times Magazine and was featured twice on the “Joe Rogan Experience,” a podcast with 200 million downloads a month). That put Jones in the same company of other Rogan guests, which have included Democratic presidential candidates, Tesla CEO Elon Musk, and scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson.

YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter did boot Jones off of their platforms last year, although he still has his own website and radio show, “Infowars,” which had roughly 1.4 million visits to the website and views of its videos per day prior to the bans.

Flat-earthers and other conspiracy believers “don’t want to trust scientists, they don’t want to trust people in authority to tell them what the world is like,” Lee McIntyre, a professor at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University, said. “They do their own research, they talk to other people.”

The vast amount of stuff floating on the web, the ease of disseminating misinformation and a growing distrust of traditional media, science and university-based research has led most to agree on one thing alone: Americans are operating with different sets of facts, and sometimes in alternate versions of reality.

Reality distorted. How social media pushes conspiracy.

When Landrum went to the first ever flat Earth conference in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 2017 she found that most attendees she talked to said they had only recently started believing the Earth is flat.

They told Landrum they stumbled upon Mark Sargent’s “Flat Earth Clues” series, and another popular video titled, “200 Proofs the Earth is Not a Spinning Ball,” after YouTube recommended them several times, usually after they watched videos about other conspiracies.

In pursuit of users attention, YouTube would recommend a series of videos that pushed a viewer to the furthest edge of an idea. If you were watching a video on how NASA faked the moon landing, the platform might suggest you check out Sargent’s series.

Last year, in a popular column titled “YouTube, the Great Radicalizer,” Zeynep Tufekci, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina who researches the intersection of technology and society, described starting a new YouTube account and finding that each time she chose a topic, the platform would recommend the most extreme version of it.

If Tufekci chose a video on vegetarianism it would recommend vegan content. She watched videos of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, and was led to videos arguing “the existence of secret government agencies and allegations that the United States government was behind the attacks of Sept. 11.”

Sargent claims the flat Earth movement would not have been nearly as successful if it had not been for YouTube. “We couldn’t have gotten this far without it,” he said.

YouTube announced it would change the recommendation algorithm at the beginning of this year. The company has not removed the misleading videos and they are still available through search and subscription to conspiracy-centric channels.

“YouTube is a platform for free speech where anyone can choose to post videos, as long as they follow our Community Guidelines,” a YouTube spokesperson wrote in an email.

That said, the platform has been scaling down its recommendation of “borderline content and videos that could misinform users in harmful ways” and getting credible sources in front of viewers’ eyeballs instead, according to YouTube.

The company claims clicks on flat Earth videos have decreased by about 67%.

However, the changes are gradual and there is evidence that misinformation and extreme views are still being recommended, albeit, on a smaller scale.

One study published this year looked at over two million recommendations for videos from May and July, four months after YouTube announced it would start changing its algorithm. The researchers focused on three categories of content: “intellectual dark web,” “alt-lite,” and “alt-right” channels. They described alt-right members as those who “sponsor fringe ideas like that of a white ethno state” and alt-lite as those who “deny to embrace white supremacist ideology, although they frequently flirt with concepts associated with it.”

By looking at the comments section of the videos, they found that users were indeed gravitating from less extreme content (intellectual dark web) to the most extreme (alt-right) over time.

They also created fresh YouTube accounts to see if a user could start with an intellectual dark web video and then be steered towards alt-right through the platforms recommender system. This happened less frequently, which suggests that YouTube is actually limiting how frequently its algorithm pushes users to extremes.

YouTube may still be sending users down the rabbit hole, just at a smaller scale. Some worry that changing the recommendation algorithm will not be enough. Former YouTube software engineer Guillaume Chaslot was initially ecstatic about the changes announced, calling it “a historic victory,” in a Twitter thread. But, he later told the Times the move was a “P.R. stunt,” that would “address only a tiny fraction of conspiracy theories.”

Facebook announced a similar strategy after anti-vaccination groups proliferated on the site — they would not take the groups down but make it slightly hard to seek them out. On the “Montanans for Vaccine Choice” page, which focuses on anti-vaccination material and other conspiracies, Facebook also added a disclaimer of sorts, “This Page posts about vaccines.” They also recommend that users go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for up-to-date information. The message pops up on the “Revolution For Choice,” and “Vaccine Education Network: Natural Health Anti-Vaxx Community,” pages. There is no mention of misinformation or misleading facts.

Old school experts stepping in

Scientists are trying to find ways to control the damage that’s been done on their own.

“We need to engage the group that are distrustful of scientists, we need to find common values that we share, that we can have an open dialogue about,” Landrum at Texas Tech said. “And we need to build up trust in the communities.”

In 2018, McIntyre, at Boston College, came to the same conclusion. He published an article in the American Journal of Physics calling on scientists to talk with flat-earthers.

Bruce Sherwood, a retired physics professor and American Physical Society fellow, read McIntyre’s article and decided to build a 3D model of the flat Earth that shows the implausibility of the theory. Sherwood is compassionate towards the conspiracy theorists, but he too is worried that the spread of the flat-earthers is a harbinger of darker things.

That’s because more evidence might not help sway the conspiracy theorists. In the documentary “Behind the Curve,” the filmmakers follow a group of flat-earthers as they set out to prove the conspiracy through a series of legitimate scientific experiments. Both the experiments “fail,” i.e. they prove that the Earth is a spinning globe. And yet the results do nothing to sway the flat-earthers. Instead, they assume their methodology was wrong and try to find new ways to prove the Earth is flat.

Despite claims that they are in search of the truth, conspiracists have managed to create a barrier against evidence in their own minds and the minds of who follow them on social media.

McIntyre quotes essayist Christopher Hitchens: Anything that can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. So why bother?

He explains, “You have to bother. You have to engage. Otherwise the movement will just continue to grow.”