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Published August 28th 2019

A Year on Flat Earth

Next up in our series on conspiracy theories, Joshua Boyd explores social and survey data on the idea that the Earth is flat

Look at it. It’s flat. See that horizon? Flat. Is this marble slowly rolling its way as though on a sphere? No. Flat.

I’m of course talking about Earth, and those on this planet of ours that claim it’s flat. And they mean flat like a disc. No oblate spheroid blasting through space for them. This is Terry Pratchett’s Discworld (without the elephants and turtle) and we’re just living on it.

We’ve looked at conspiracy theories before, most recently around the Moon landing being faked. Using Qriously, our mobile survey tool, we decided to find out how many people believed in certain conspiracies. We asked 2,000 people.

That is not an insignificant number of people. You might have met a flat-Earther already, oblivious to their beliefs about the universe and our home.

Studying Flat Earth

We’ve looked at flat-Earthers before. We had a look at their demographics and found the vast majority were men, while we also came across a few celebrities convinced that a curved Earth was a lie.

But that was two years ago. A lot has happened in the Flat Earth community since then. Are the believers still going strong?

Using social data from Aug 2018 – Aug 2019 picked up by Brandwatch Analytics, we looked at all the big spikes in conversations around Flat Earth to find out. While we looked at a range of sources for this blog post, we used Twitter conversations to find spikes in interest.

Here’s a year on Flat Earth.

Google are in on it

Looking at our data we saw a spike almost immediately. On 3 August 2018, Flat Earth conversations jump and, lo and behold, it looks like Google are trying to suppress the truth. Sort of.

Google put out an update to the desktop version of Google Maps. Now when you zoomed out far enough, rather than seeing a flat representation of Earth, you saw a globe.

From flat to a globe? Seems like someone’s got something to hide. Google says it’s about offering a more realistic representation of the planet which avoids pitfalls of different mapping projections, but you can believe what you want.

Celebrities abandoning the cause

A range of famous names have put their weight behind Flat Earth. The rapper B.o.B even started a fundraiser to settle the question once and for all. But in the last year some turned their backs on the theory.

Kyrie Irving is an American professional basketball player who, in February 2017, said the Earth was flat. In following interviews he either downplayed his beliefs or claimed they were joke, ultimately saying people should do their own research.

Our next spike in mentions came at the beginning of October 2018, when Irving publicly apologized for ever saying the Earth was without curve, specifically saying sorry to science teachers. You can hear his apology below:

Here come the nerds from the dictionary factory

It’s tough being a Flat Earther – you never know who’s going to come for you next. At the end of November 2018, it was Dictionary.com.

On the 26th of the month, Dictionary.com announced ‘misinformation’ as their word of the year. This was picked as a direct response to Flat Earth believers (amongst other things), as stated by a Dictionary.com linguist-in-residence, Jane Solomon.

Another stinging blow from the establishment. Could it get any worse?

Meanwhile…

Things die down after this as the year comes to a close, but in amongst this research we found something interesting. Flat Earth mega-threads spanning pages of posts and years of discussion.

Even while there was a general lull in conversation, in random corners of the internet debate was raging on as pro and anti Flat Earth theorists threw their evidence and assertions at one another from behind screens.

Here are the biggest and longest threads we found as of time of writing.

3. HardwareZone’s ‘Science proves Earth is flat

Posts: 1,711
Age of thread: 190 days, 14 hours, and 49 minutes

Started on the 18 Feb this year, the user 肯定拒绝屁啊屁 (Google Translate’s English take on this username was “Definitely refused fart”) got the thread going by posting this video:

肯定拒绝屁啊屁 goes on to defend the video and the theory against a range of commenters.

Were they trolling or a genuine believer? It’s hard to say. They kept up their argument all the way through till May, with the thread ceasing activity a few hours later. 肯定拒绝屁啊屁 has since been banned.

2. Big Footy’s ‘The Flat Earth Mega thread.

Posts: 7,295
Age of thread: 1,507 days, 21 hours, and 11 minutes

This one’s been going since July 2015 and hasn’t given up the ghost yet. Starting in a similar way to HardwareZone’s thread, a since-deleted video was posted that supported the Flat Earth theory. The thread creator, katana, also asked what people thought.

The responses were decidedly anti-Flat Earth from the off, but this did not dissuade katana who continued to argue with commenters one by one. Since the heady days of 2015, it seems like katana has moved on but others have taken up the cause instead.

1. Bitcoin Forum’s ‘Flat Earth

Posts: 15,813
Age of thread: 1,610 days, 3 hours, and 1 minutee

Created in April 2015 by the user notbatman, this thread started a little differently. notbatman was looking for answers, asking the forum:

How as an individual can I know if the Earth is a sphere or a flat disc? What experiment can I do that doesn’t involve trusting information from a 3rd party that would prove what the geometry really is?

It quickly became clear that notbatman had already made up his mind as he swatted away pro-globe evidence. Impressively, they’re still posting in that thread over four years later stating the world is flat. That’s true dedication (to Flat Earth or trolling, I’m not sure which).

Flat Earth peaks

While forums continue to buzz with Flat Earth discourse, Twitter conversations around the topic hit a peak on 18 Feb 2019.

Unfortunately for flat-Earthers, it wasn’t a scientific revelation that bolstered their cause.

Instead it was a study that found YouTube was the main source of info for flat-Earthers, with the press labelling the theory a conspiracy and attacking YouTube. This came shortly after the platform announced new measure to combat conspiracy theories.

The study was based on 30 interviews with attendees at a 2017 Flat Earth conference. They were asked about their views on Flat Earth and where they had got them from. All but one cited YouTube as their source.

It also stated that flat-Earthers were watching content on conspiracy theories around 9/11 and Sandy Hook thanks to YouTube’s algorithm suggesting them after Flat Earth videos.

YouTube’s recommendation engine had been in the headlines multiple times previously for everything from pushing children towards bizarre and inappropriate videos to bolstering support for far-right ideas and groups.

This study was another very big and very negative public spotlight on YouTube’s algorithm.

Behind the Curve

Enter Netflix.

Behind the Curve  is a documentary about flat-Earthers, their lives, and their quest to prove planetary flatness with scientific experiments. It also includes a bunch of scientists talking about how ridiculous the Flat Earth theory is.

It’s an inviting documentary. One of the main flat-Earthers featured is Mark Sargent. He comes across as a genuinely friendly guy that just happens to have an odd obsession. Many of those featured are the same, although there is also a fair share of more aggressive and arrogant believers.

Essentially it humanizes flat-Earthers, transforming them from deluded conspiracy theorists spending all their time in dark basements, to more of a well-meaning fan club just trying to figure out the world around them.

Behind the Curve was released on Netflix at the end of Feb 2019, and caused a spike in Flat Earth conversation that lasted well into March.

Ultimately it was not exactly positive attention, even if it attempted to be balanced and let flat-Earthers speak for themselves. I won’t ruin the ending for you here, but it’s safe to say very few people will have been converted to the cause after watching it (I hope).

Logan Paul wants in

As one of the biggest internet personalities in the world, Logan Paul creates videos on anything and everything (some topics more controversial than others) and eventually turned his eye to Flat Earth theory.

We see two spikes in relation to this. The first on 11 March, where The Verge published a piece critical of YouTube and the documentary, essentially highlighting a double-standard of the platform clamping down on conspiracy content, while its highest earners are making documentaries about it.

The article mentions an argument made back in 2017 that even content making light of conspiracy theories, whether full-length documentaries or throwaway memes, can put people on the path to believing them.

Paul’s documentary was released on Mar 21, entitled FLAT EARTH: To The Edge And Back. You can watch it below if you have a spare 50 minutes.

The movie sits somewhere between a documentary and a mocumentary, ultimately telling the story of Logan Paul setting out to mock flat-Earthers, but then being sucked in and becoming one of them.

It involves going to a Flat Earth conference, falling in love with a flat-Earther, and Paul announcing his conversion to a room full of people. But then it switches.

The final scene is Paul being interviewed and saying he thinks the idea of a Flat Earth is ridiculous, finishing with one more joke: that he now doubts the Earth even exists.

With a mix of real people and actors, it’s obvious that Paul never really believed in Flat Earth, but it still gave a huge boost to the awareness of Flat Earth. As of the time of writing, it’s been seen nearly 6m times. Did any of those views open someone’s eyes to the ‘truth’?

Flat Earther as a by-word

Post-Paul we don’t see any significant spikes, although we still see 2k to 3k Flat Earth mentions a day. Prior to the attention Flat Earth got from studies, and Netflix, and Logan Paul, daily mentions barely passed 1.5k.

But today mentions aren’t just about the theory itself.

Instead, we see plenty of people use flat-Earther as a general term to insult, often through comparison. People will criticise other people, or their beliefs, by drawing parallels between them and Flat Earth.

This is particularly common around climate change.

The suggestion is that flat-Earthers are a symptom of the times, of disinformation and fake news, and a lack of trust in traditional media or established organizations.

Instead people are looking for the answers in new places, from new people. It could be Mark Sargent with his low budget videos made out of his bedroom, or the high-production value Alex Jones shows.

In other mentions we see people link Flat Earth with Trump and Brexit, as though whatever ground has been laid that’s fertile for conspiracy theories is fertile also for those two unexpected election results.

Could there be some truth in that? The first big spike in searches around Flat Earth occurred at the start of 2016, the same year the UK voted to leave the EU and Trump became President of the United States.

Could it all be linked? Does it all start with Flat Earth?

Or is it just another conspiracy theory?

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