Of all the conspiracy theories in history — QAnon, the faked moon landing, the belief that Katy Perry is somehow JonBenet Ramsey — perhaps none is as ridiculous, as outright outlandish, as Flat Earth theory. The archaic belief that the earth is flat and not a globe, as centuries of research have determined, may seem like a silly and fringe belief. But in recent years, thanks to the advent of social media, Flat Earth theory has gained increasing prominence, and has even been espoused by prominent figures like NBA star Kyrie Irving. And in light of the pandemic, which has led to a proliferation of conspiratorial thinking in general, there’s growing concern among those who study extremism and misinformation that believing in Flat Earth theory can lead one down even darker rabbit holes.
On this week’s episode of Don’t Let This Flop, Rolling Stone‘s podcast about TikTok and internet culture, co-hosts Ej Dickson and Brittany Spanos talked with Kelly Weill, a journalist at the Daily Beast and author of the recent book Off the Edge: Flat Earthers, Conspiracy Culture, and Why People Will Believe Anything. In the following interview, as transcribed from the episode, Weill talks about the roots of Flat Earth in a Nineteenth-century utopian community; the overlap between Flat Earth and more insidious conspiracy theories, such as the anti-vaccine movement; and how platforms like YouTube and, more recently, TikTok, have allowed the community to mushroom.
What actually led you to start reporting on on Flat Earth theory to begin with?
So I have always watched weird people online. It’s kind of a hobby. It’s become a profession. And as part of my job for the Daily Beast, I was monitoring some extremist forums in 2017, and I started seeing people post about Flat Earth theory and I thought they were kidding. I thought they were just being trolls, whatever. And then I dug in and I found out that they were extremely serious, and there was this whole burgeoning community that thought Earth was absolutely flat.
Can you explain what the roots of this theory are, as outlined in your book?
Absolutely. So some background info: people tend to think that Flat Earth is a really long held belief, that Columbus thought he might go over the edge of the flat Earth when he was exploring. And that’s not actually true. We’ve known for thousands of years the Earth was round, but Flat Earth came roaring back in the mid-1800s. It’s one guy’s fault [“Zetetic Astronomy” founder Samuel Rowbotham]. He is a really interesting figure, a former leader of this failed socialist commune that didn’t work out. He pivoted into selling snake oil, and that kind of got him some moderate success. But where he really struck gold was when he started proposing the Earth was flat based on some observations he’d made while hanging out in this canal when he should have been running his commune. Because this canal was super long and straight, it really did sort of look like a Flat earth if you were only observing that with the naked eye. He published his findings — effectively, he lied. If you do any basic scientific work, any rudimentary measurements, you’re going to find that Earth is round and you can observe this with the naked eye or with the telescope. But he published these fabricated findings, started releasing books, started going on a lecture circuit and people were really taken by this theory, either in earnest or they thought it was funny. They’d show up to his lectures to to try and debate him, and he was a pretty good debater so he could make a spectacle of it. And that theory has stuck around for the next 160 years or so, fairly unchanged.
So people thought it was a meme? Like even back then in the mid-nineteenth century, people didn’t take it seriously?
It was absolutely a meme, and I sort of loved the research component of this book because there were so many historical figures that you can absolutely see who they are in a modern-day internet context. This guy’s a YouTuber, right? Give him a YouTube channel and let him talk, and he is a wild success. He understood that people weren’t necessarily going to believe Flat Earth theory, but that they would engage with it because it was so weird. And he played up that spectacle element, too. He would try and invite scientists to his lectures to get them to debate him. He completely understood that what’s engaging about a conspiracy theory is that it’s so weird and it’s so scintillating that even though people were going to come and debate him, a number of people in the audience would be convinced anyway.
Why do you think people are so invested in this specific conspiracy theory? It seems like such a strange hill to die on.
It is really strange. I think the strangeness is part of what draws people to Flat Earth. I mean, that certainly happened to me. Maybe from the opposite side, it was just so weird that I wanted to understand it better. But what I think is compelling about Flat Earth to a lot of people is that it offers a complete worldview. You can be a conspiracy theorist and only believe in a few kind of fringe things and still exist mostly in the mainstream, but think that there are chem trails in the sky or whatever. Flat Earth is this huge force. It’s almost like a religion in that it gives an entire new worldview. It lets you recreate reality from the ground up. And I think for people who feel like some elements of their life are lacking, or that the available answers don’t make sense to them and they want a holistic new explanation of the world, flat earth is the answer.
You mentioned YouTube a little bit earlier and you wrote a lot about how the YouTube algorithm is taking people down a Flat Earth rabbit hole. But what role do apps like TikTok have in providing a platform to this conspiracy theory?
It’s interesting. I haven’t seen a ton of TikTok-fueled Flat Earth content. It’s definitely not to say that it isn’t there. But some of the biggest Flat Earth influencers are more YouTube types, and I think that’s important because I think the the main demographic that I’ve seen at a flat Earth conference is maybe more Gen X. But that’s not to say that there aren’t young flat-Earthers and there isn’t TikTok Flat Earth content. I think that conspiracy culture really, really performs well on any social media platform. And if you can have a tagline about Flat Earth in a TikTok video, or you can highlight right up front that that’s what’s coming, people are going to stick around on that video because it’s just too weird not to watch. And I think a lot of creators are canny enough to know that. So even if they’re not fully invested in something like Flat Earth, they know it is probably going to be good for engagement.
I actually did a search before before this conversation on TikTok. And I was really surprised because even looking up just the hashtag flat-Earth, it doesn’t seem like TikTok is really making any effort to censor the hashtag at all. There are videos on there with hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of views. So how are these platforms like YouTube and like TikTok actually moderating this content? Do they label it misinformation like they would COVID 19 misinformation?
As far as YouTube goes, YouTube is the primary vector for flat-Earth, at least when it was coming up starting 2014 onward. Their algorithm just way disproportionately promoted flat-Earth content. So you could be watching something that’s only tangentially related to flat, like, I don’t know, 9/11 videos, and it would recommend Flat Earth because it was conspiracy content. Or you could be watching just astronomy videos and it would recommend a Flat Earth video. YouTube finally got wise to this problem after tons of criticism in 2019, so five years after Flat Earth video started skyrocketing, they changed their algorithm to stop promoting Flat Earth videos that much. They’re supposed to be not delisted, but not promoted in the Recommendation tab that you have there. But that’s not to say that they’re being removed or that you can’t find them. You just need to know how to search for them. TikTok, I’ve seen even less moderation of them, and I it’s hard for me to speak to exactly what they’re doing because it’s such a black box in terms of how TikTok chooses to keep certain content online. But I haven’t seen much indication that they’re really engaging with Flat Earth or similar theories as a major threat.
Over the past few years, particularly with the Trump administration and the pandemic, conspiracy theories in general have gotten a lot more mainstream. So has the flat Earth community also grown in kind? And how much overlap is there between Flat Earth and Q, and Flat Earth and anti-vax?
It has definitely grown, and I think that overlap is part of the reason. Flat Earth used to be a sort of small community. It was this one weird thing that not many people bought into. But over the past five years or so, I feel like there’s been a lot more bleedover between conspiracy realms. And some of that might be algorithmic as well. I have a fake Facebook page where I join a couple of conspiracy communities and then just see what it recommends to me. So if I’m looking at chem trails pages, it’s going to start recommending pages for this apocalyptic astrological conspiracy theory, which holds a special place in my heart, but I won’t get into that one. And so between Facebook recommending this crossover, YouTube recommending this crossover, TikTok’s algorithm — which is frankly terrifying to me, I don’t know how it reads your mind — there has been a lot more cross-pollination between conspiracy worlds. I will see major QAnon influencers on Telegram just drop a Flat Earth post and I’m like, OK, I don’t like that. But also, what does this even have to do with your theory? Let’s keep some compartmentalization. And that, unfortunately, is just not happening right now.
In your book, you write about how even attempts to mock Flat Earth, such as Logan Paul’s mockumentary and this documentary [Behind the Curve] that premiered, I think in 2018, which was very good and very critical of Flat Earth, were drawing more attention to it and thus potentially recruiting more people to the movement. Do you ever worry about that with your own reporting, or with writing this book even?
I absolutely do. It’s something that I keep very much in the forefront of my mind, just as a reporter at the Daily Beast covering this kind of thing. With this book as well, I think it is always a risk. But I think smart reporting on conspiracy theories is unfortunately necessary just due to the influence that they have in modern politics and the reach that they would have even without us. I think that Flat Earth documentary was very good. I think the Logan Paul mockumentary was very bad. And the reason I say that is, do these forms of media help us understand and combat conspiracy theories in a way that’s necessary? Or are they just spectacle? The Logan Paul documentary, for anyone who did not watch, he went to a Flat Earth conference. I was there. He posed as a Flat Earther, he didn’t interrogate the theory really at all. You don’t even need to engage with the theory on its merits. But he didn’t interrogate why people believed what they did. He offered a caricature of these believers. I think it was a bit mean-spirited. And then he dropped it online with no real engagement on how conspiracy theories work, what draws people to them, and now his own role in promoting them very uncritically. So that was my issue. But I think when reporting on these topics, it’s always critical to consider whether your reporting is going to make these communities happy. And I think I have in earlier days maybe been guilty of amplifying things in just pointing out something wacky online, and it’s something I very much try to push back against today. I omit page names, if it’s a Facebook group. I don’t link out to things and I only reference these theories and these communities if it’s coupled with analysis or if there is a relevant political hook. Otherwise, why post about it at all?
What do you see as the future of the movement?
I think the future of Flat Earth is its crossover. It’s not so much bringing complete normies into the theory because most people are not going to believe in flat Earth. That’s one thing that’s kind of distinct about it. A lot of people can buy into anti-vaccine theory, but very few people are going into flat Earth just cold and being like, ‘That’s it. That’s exactly right. I believe no other conspiracy theories. Flat Earth is the one.’ Where Flat Earth’s future lies is recruiting from other, more popular conspiracy theories. So we’ve seen the huge popularization of QAnon-type theories or of anti-vaccine theories, and I’m seeing those groups become distribution centers for other conspiracy movements, including Flat Earth. So I think that Flat Earthers are diversifying their message. I’m looking at Flat Earth pages that in 2017 were really on message only Flat Earth stuff. And now they’ll mix it up. They’ll have anti-vax, they’ll have election truther stuff, and that makes it a more palatable community for people who might not be completely on board with flat Earth. I think those are their new targets.
You can listen to the entire episode here: