All over the world, and against all scientific evidence, a section of the population believes that the Earth’s round shape is either an unproven theory or an elaborate hoax. Polls by YouGov America in 2018 and FDU in 2022 showed that as many as 11% of Americans believe the Earth may be flat.
While it’s tempting to dismiss “flat Earthers” as mildly amusing, we ignore their arguments at our peril. Polls show that there is an overlap between conspiracy theories, some of which may act as gateways to radicalization. For example, QAnon and the great replacement theory have proved deadly on more than one occasion.
By studying how flat Earthers talk about their beliefs, we can learn how to make their arguments appealing to their audience, and in turn learn why disinformation is being spread online.
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In a recent study, my colleague Tomas Nilsson of Linnaeus University and I analyzed hundreds of YouTube videos in which people claim that the Earth is flat. We paid attention to their debating techniques to understand the structure of their arguments and how they make them seem rational.
One strategy they use is to take sides in existing debates. People who are strongly attached to one side of a culture war are likely to use all arguments (including truths, half-truths, and opinions) if it helps them win. People invest their identities in the group and are more willing to believe fellow allies rather than perceived adversaries — a phenomenon sociologists call neo-tribalism.
The problem arises when people internalize disinformation as part of their identity. While news articles can be fact-checked, personal beliefs cannot. When conspiracy theories are part of one’s value system or worldview, it is difficult to challenge them.
The Three Themes of the Flat Earth Theory
Analyzing these videos, we saw that Flat Earthers take advantage of ongoing culture wars by inserting their own arguments into the logic of, essentially, three main debates. These debates have been going on for a very long time and can be very personal for the participants on both sides.
First, there is the debate about the existence of God, which dates back to ancient times and is based on reason rather than observation. People are already debating atheism versus belief, evolution versus creationism, and Big Bang versus intelligent design. What Flat Earthers are doing is building their argument within the longstanding struggle of the Christian right, arguing that atheists use pseudoscience—evolution, the Big Bang, and around the Earth—to lead people away from God.
A common flat Earther chorus that aligns with religious beliefs is that God can only physically inhabit the heavens above us in a flat plane, not a sphere. As one flat Earther put it:
They invented the big bang to deny that God created everything, and they invented evolution to convince you that He cares more about monkeys than you… an infinite universe, to make you believe that God is far from you. has been removed.
The second theme is a conspiracy theory in which ordinary people revolt against a ruling elite of corrupt politicians and celebrities. Knowledge is power, and this theory holds that those in power conspire to keep knowledge to themselves by distorting the fundamental nature of reality. The message is that people are easy to control if they believe what they are told rather than their own eyes. The Earth does appear flat to the naked eye. Flat Earthers see themselves as part of a community of unsung heroes, who fight against the tyranny of an elite who won’t make the public believe what they see.
The third theme is based on the “freethinking” argument, which goes back to the spirited debate about the presence or absence of God in the text of the US Constitution. This secular view holds that rational people should not believe in authority or dogmas – instead, they should trust only their own reason and experience. Freethinkers distrust experts who use “bookknowledge” or “nonsense math” that laymen can’t replicate. Flat Earthers often use personal observations to test whether the Earth is round, especially through homemade experiments. They see themselves as the visionaries and scientists of yesteryear, as a modern-day Galileo.
Countering disinformation on social media is difficult when people internalize it as a personal belief. Fact-checking can be ineffective and counterproductive, as misinformation becomes a personal opinion or value.
Responding to flat Earthers (or other conspiracy theorists) requires an understanding of the logic that makes their arguments persuasive. For example, if you know they find arguments from authority unconvincing, it may not be effective to select a government scientist as the spokesperson for a counter-argument. Instead, it may be more appealing to propose a homemade experiment that anyone can replicate.
If you can identify the rationality behind their particular beliefs, a counter argument can use that logic. Group insiders are often key to this — only a spokesperson with impeccable credentials like a devout Christian can say you don’t need the flat earth beliefs to stay true to your faith.
In general, beliefs such as the flat-earth theory, QAnon, and the big replacement theory grow because they appeal to a sense of group identity that is under attack. Even far-fetched misinformation and conspiracies can seem rational if they fit existing grievances. Since social media debates only require content to be posted, participants create a feedback loop that cements misinformation as positions that cannot be fact-verified.
Article by Carlos Diaz Ruiz, Assistant Professor, Hanken School of Economics
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.