How the Internet Made Us Believe in a Flat Earth

The movement was dying out right around the time Facebook showed up

Matt J Weber 🤖
Dec 12, 2018 · 8 min read
Credit: MatiasEnElMundo/iStock/Getty Images Plus

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The Earth is a sphere—or rather, an oblate spheroid. A horrible, horrible oblate spheroid. It would be so much better if it were flat. For one, there’d be no pesky lunar eclipses without the Earth’s terribly round shadow to obscure an otherwise perfect view of our one and only moon. Even better, all the stars in the sky would be in perfect view every single night, unblocked by the loathsome horizon of a miserably spherical world. And, as any cartographer knows, a flat Earth would be so much easier to render on a two-dimensional map.

But, unfortunately, the Earth is not flat.

And yet, contrary to all scientific evidence, there are people who believe the Earth is flat. They even have their own club, the Flat Earth Society. And its support is growing and counts NBA stars and reality show celebrities among its followers.

In the 1990s, the Flat Earth Society was bankrupt and all but dead. Then the internet happened, and it made people want to believe in a flat Earth again.

The images below are the first photographs of Earth from more than 100 miles in space. The U.S. military took them in 1947 using a V-2 rocket captured from the German Wehrmacht. It was one of the first times we really saw the Earth from a distance. And it was clearly round.

Photos: NASA

Less than a decade later, the Flat Earth Society convened for the first time and espoused a view of the planet that didn’t fit with the new images being sent from space and that had already been rejected by much of the scientific community for nearly half a millennia. According to the Flat Earth Society’s ideas, the Earth was a flat disk with the Arctic at its center and a towering wall of ice all along its circumference. The sun, moon, and stars, they said, were no further away than New York is from London.

They also asserted that everything NASA was showing us was an elaborate deception.

Shortly after the first men walked on the moon, the original founder of the Flat Earth Society died. A small but dedicated fanbase kept his work alive and continued the circulation of a flat Earth newsletter. Over the years, the society slowly grew and spread, eventually garnering a subscribership of around 3,500 flat-Earthers in the 1990s. But in 1997, a house fire destroyed the Flat Earth Society’s library and membership roster. Unable to collect dues, the Flat Earth Society fell into deep financial trouble. The last organizers died a short time later, and the Flat Earth Society might’ve died right along with them—if not for the internet.

In 2004, the Flat Earth Society returned as an online discussion forum. Anybody with an interest in flat Earth theories and an internet connection could post questions or start topics of conversation or share flat Earth links and resources. But most of all, they could connect with fellow flat-Earthers.

It’s in the best interest of social media networks to encourage their users to keep posting content to the platform, no matter how dubious it might be.

Coincidentally, 2004 was the same year Facebook was created. YouTube launched a year later. Then Twitter. By the time the Flat Earth Society had its own website in 2009, social media had already begun to dominate the online landscape. Internet users today spend about 22 percent of their time online on social media networks. For many, social media is the internet. From specialty cars to artisanal cooking to niche films to online sewing circles, social media offers a group for everyone. Even flat-Earthers.

Before the advent of the internet, it took 50 years for the Flat Earth Society to reach 3,500 members. Their website now gets over 300,000 unique visits every day. There are flat Earth Facebook pages with over 100,000 likes; flat Earth YouTube videos with millions of views; and an untold number of Twitter users and subreddits and discussion forums and online chat rooms—all dedicated to the dissemination of flat Earth theories.

With a potential audience of billions, social media can give somebody in their basement the same reach as a traditional television studio. Distribution is as easy as a few clicks and uploads. Social media has essentially leveled—or flattened—the media landscape, so to speak.

User-generated content is the lifeblood of social media. If it weren’t for status updates, tweets, and video uploads, social media feeds would be empty. It’s in the best interest of social media networks to encourage their users to keep posting content to the platform, no matter how dubious it might be—not just flat Earth theories but everything from UFO cover-ups to anti-vaccination campaigns to Pizzagate to the infiltration of the government by reptilian humanoids. But it’s interesting to note that metrics for the search term “flat Earth” have shot up over the last few years.

Screenshot: Matt J Weber/Google Trends

In a 2018 YouGov poll, one-third of millennials surveyed said they weren’t totally convinced the world was round even though we’ve had half a millennia of scientific consensus on the subject. Just the little bit of attention that’s been given to the idea of a flat Earth—even though it’s verifiably false—has increased interest in the subject.

And it’s especially effective when famous people are involved.

In 2017, NBA star Kyrie Irving went on a podcast and claimed the Earth was flat. Twice. Being a professional sports star, he held the attention of millions of followers. In social media parlance, he’s an influencer. Despite eventually disavowing the belief, Irving spurred on an untold number of people in thinking the world is flat. Thanks to him, classes of middle-school students had begun to embrace the theory.

Social media isn’t really the problem — human behavior is. Social media just acts as a magnifier.

He’s not the only one. NFL star Sammy Watkins says he believes the Earth is flat. Wilson Chandler of the Denver Nuggets came out in support of Irving. I don’t know what it is about professional athletes, but even Shaquille O’Neal argued that the Earth is not only flat, it’s square—though he later claimed he was joking. But whether it was a joke or not, the idea got out there.

Rapper B.o.B got into a Twitter feud with celebrity physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson over the shape of the Earth then uploaded a track on Soundcloud all about it. It now has over a million plays. Tila Tequila, who garnered her own reality TV show after becoming the most popular person on Myspace, used her significant social media presence to promote the idea that the Earth is flat. In a move that was most likely a cheap ploy for attention, notorious YouTube celebrity Logan Paul spoke at a flat Earth convention and voiced his support for the theory.

Whatever the motivation, each time a celebrity comes out in favor of flat Earth theory, millions of social media users pay attention.

But the internet isn’t solely to blame. After all, social media platforms only want to give people what they want. It’s what they’re designed to do. If you watch a YouTube video about flat Earth theory, the algorithm will continue to recommend flat Earth videos. If you follow a prominent flat-Earther on Twitter, the platform will recommend other flat-Earthers to follow.

Our brains already do this on their own without the help of social media. It’s called confirmation bias. We’re inclined to cherry-pick evidence and cultivate information that already conforms to our particular worldview. These social media networks amplify our natural tendency to confirm our own biases. They automate and optimize the flaws in our own critical thinking.

These are beliefs that can have very real-and deadly-consequences. And social media is only making it worse by perpetuating them.

I don’t want to get down on social media too much. I actually love it. I’m on it every day. Facebook helps me remember people’s birthdays and keeps me in touch with friends and family who I otherwise would’ve lost touch with long ago. Twitter gives me access to the innermost thoughts of celebrities and people I admire who I would never have had access to in real life. Without the viewership that social media networks provide, much of what I do just would not be possible.

Social media isn’t really the problem—human behavior is. Social media just acts as a magnifier. We could rework the algorithms, redesign the user interface, and scrub social networks of misinformation, but we’ll always run up against the cognitive bugs in our own minds.

Image for post
Credit: Matt J Weber/The Good Stuff/YouTube

Among all the wild beliefs humans can have, a flat Earth theory is a rather harmless one; it doesn’t really hurt anybody. For most people, it doesn’t really matter if the Earth is flat or not as long as it is a place where they feel like they belong.

So why does it matter if some people believe in a flat Earth?

The same flawed psychology that fuels the flat Earth theory fuels anti-vaxxers and climate-change deniers. Outbreaks of preventable diseases have put the most vulnerable populations in danger. The delay in reducing greenhouse gas emissions has committed us to around a meter rise in sea level. This will displace millions of people and erase entire cities from the map. These are beliefs that can have very real—and deadly—consequences. And social media is only making it worse by perpetuating them.

But less social media may not actually be the answer.

Maybe we should delete Facebook. Sign out of Twitter. Go offline permanently. Reject the whole internet. Retreat into the woods and go off the grid. Obviously, it seems too much internet is not good for us.

But less social media may not actually be the answer.

Thanks to the internet, we are more connected than ever. Through online networks, we share our thoughts and feelings (even if through emojis). We share videos and pictures of our cats. We even share our current locations and some of the most intimate moments in our lives. There’s very little we don’t share these days.

If there’s one thing flat-Earthers and round-Earthers share, it’s a passion for the truth. We all want to make sense of the world around us. And sometimes understanding means accepting answers we don’t like or ones that require us to connect with people we don’t agree with. We cannot isolate ourselves; we need outside perspectives to keep ourselves in check. The cores of our belief systems have to be subject to scrutiny. Otherwise, they become rotten with confirmation bias.

The best way to do this might be through social media networks. After all, they say they want to bring the world closer together. Without being too “kumbaya about all this, it actually works in practice. Identifying and challenging unrealistic perceptions or beliefs in a constructive, nonconfrontational manner is one of the central methods of professional cognitive behavioral therapy.

Regardless of how diametrically opposed our beliefs might seem to be, even if it might seem like we are living on different planets, we have to believe that we can find common ground.

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