Kelly Weill’s new book, off the edge, is a deep dive into the world of flat Earth conspiracy theorists – those who believe the Earth is a plan or disc-shaped rather than spherical – which brilliantly reveals how people fall into illogical beliefs, reject the reason, destroy relationships and connect with a wide range of conspiracy theories in the age of social media. Beautiful, thorough, and often empathetic, the book connects the Flat Earth movement to other conspiracy theories currently affecting our lives and politics.
Flat Earth theories vary, but the most popular claims that the planet is a disk with a high wall of ice around its perimeter; the sun is very small and only hovers about 3,000 miles above the Earth, illuminating parts of it like a searchlight; outer space does not exist; and gravity may not exist. Adherents believe NASA is guarding the ice wall and, along with other governments, is spreading misinformation to trick people into believing that the Earth is a sphere and that space travel is possible.
Weill has spent years immersed in Flat Earthers’ online communities, attending their conventions and interviewing hundreds of believers. Although their theories and backgrounds differ, Weill identified some common traits. First, their first contact with flat Earth theories often comes at a time when the rest of their lives are not going well. Second, they come to believe in a flat Earth by “doing their own research,” which often involves watching YouTube videos and reading Internet forums. One subject described in the book, Weill notes, “watched hours of Flat Earth videos over several days and converted them before the week was out.”
In fact, social media often presents flat Earth ideas to would-be believers. YouTube’s recommendation engine, for example, is optimized to direct Internet users to “engaging” content, that is, media that will keep them on the platform longer. As researchers have long known, more extreme content — content that angers those who consume it, espouses conspiracy theories or extremist views, or contains shocking information or imagery — is more engaging. Thus, people who start by watching relatively benign videos can be gradually directed to more and more marginal subjects.
Once you believe in a conspiracy theory, it’s much easier to start believing in others. The language, tactics and community that characterize conspiracy groups are similar, as are the social media algorithms that shape what researchers see online. “The flat-earth and pro-Trump movements share strands of the same conspiratorial and counterfactual DNA,” Weill notes.
When someone buys into a conspiracy theory, it’s hard to change their mind. Information that debunks the theory is often deemed untrustworthy, either because of the source or because believers are primed with superficially convincing counter-arguments. Conspiracy theories also separate believers from friends and family, convincing adherents that those who reject the theory are untrustworthy. “Sects and conspiratorial movements are cousins,” observes Weill. “Either you help the movement or you actively hurt it.
Towards the end of the book, Weill points to the ease with which conspiracy theories can permeate people’s worldviews, writing “I wish my former neighbors would stop invoking a fictitious cannibalism ring when the restaurant on the corner takes basic health precautions during a pandemic”. As a social media researcher who’s spent the past few years studying what’s happening in the dark corners of the internet, my heart ached at the recognition. A pancake-shaped planet may seem innocuous, but the serious ramifications of conspiratorial beliefs are still just below the surface.
Weill is incredibly empathetic and respectful of the people she interviews, even as she expresses her frustration at the damage conspiracy theories are doing in today’s world. She points out how hard it is to debunk such theories, given that followers don’t usually come to conversations ready to engage, but she’s not hopeless, highlighting the profound impact that media policies may have to limit their spread. A 2019 change to YouTube’s recommendation algorithm, for example, made flat Earth content much harder to find.
Conspiracy theories and their ramifications have infiltrated our daily lives. off the edge offers an insightful, human look at what drives these beliefs and the critical role social media has played in drawing people into these worlds.