Across the globe, millions of people believe the Earth — that whirling blue sphere, spinning through space — is, in fact, a flat plane. Believers diverge on the specifics, but tend to understand that we all live beneath a dome that floats through space, or perhaps, hovers above primordial waters.
It’s unclear how many people believe some version of Flat Earth theory. Tens of thousands of people belong to social media accounts dedicated to these theories, and popular videos explaining the theory have hundreds of thousands of views. Some high-profile figures, including NBA star Kyrie Irving and rapper B.o.B., have flirted with or even openly endorsed the theory. Flat Earth believers held conferences before the covid-19 pandemic and showed up at anti-mask and anti-vaccine protests throughout it.
And polling gives us some sense of the scale of this belief system: As many as 1 percent of Americans (that’s more than 3 million people) and 7 percent of Brazilians (11 million people) say they believe the Earth is flat, for example.
The modern Flat Earth movement has its origins in a snake oil salesman and utopian named Samuel Rowbotham, said Kelly Weill, a journalist who covers fringe movements for the Daily Beast and spent years researching this movement and its adherents. In her book, “Off the Edge: Flat Earthers, Conspiracy Culture, and Why People Will Believe Anything,” she traces the conspiracy theory’s resurgence in about 2015, when it began spreading across social media.
“Flat Earth enables people to cast out all previous information that they didn’t want to believe, and rebuild the world from scratch,” she told Grid. “Because what it suggests is a literal worldwide conspiracy and that nothing you’ve been told is true — that the world is vastly different from how it’s been presented. For some people, that’s a very alluring prospect.”
Weill spoke to Grid’s misinformation reporter, Anya van Wagtendonk, about the movement’s appeal, its overlap with religious beliefs and the QAnon conspiracy theory, and how we’re all susceptible to conspiratorial thinking. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Grid: What is compelling about this myth in this day and age?
Kelly Weill: A lot of Flat Earth’s modern resurgence has to do with the internet. Flat Earth was always around in some capacity through the 20th century, but it really began anew around 2014, 2015, when people realized that videos about Flat Earth perform really well on YouTube. Flat Earth is a fascinating topic. It inspires people to click because it’s just so outlandish. So, these videos were doing very well on the YouTube recommendation algorithm. People would make Flat Earth videos for clout [and] people would click on them out of curiosity. What was always a fairly small and obscure ideology was able to pick up a lot more steam this time around.
G: One of my guiding principles as a misinformation reporter is to understand what kernel of truth underlies people’s beliefs. Is there a kernel of truth here?
KW: Flat Earth is so outlandish and so wrong on its face, that, unlike some other conspiracy theories, it doesn’t have as much of a kernel of truth in the objective sense. But I think there’s an emotional truth to Flat Earth. People come to it when they feel like the world is very broadly wrong. They feel as if the explanations they’ve been given just don’t align in any sense with the universe that they inhabit.
I remember hearing one woman speak at a conference and she said that, prior to finding Flat Earth, she felt very unnerved by the scale of the universe and the small position that humans, and herself as an individual, played in the scientific model of the universe that we’ve been presented with. Flat Earth made her feel a lot more secure [and] helped her make sense of her place in the world.
G: That almost speaks to a theological or religious motivation. Did you find that there was overlap between this belief system and religious beliefs?
KW: Very much so. Flat Earth doesn’t necessarily [purport] to be a religious belief. You can adopt it purely as an alt-geographical model. But most people that I speak to in Flat Earth are quite religious, and it’s always been that way. Samuel Rowbotham, the theory’s inventor, used a lot of biblical tools in his writing, saying that the globe model conflicted with a round Earth. A lot of modern Flat Earthers will use the theory to get into other alternative Christian beliefs. A lot of them are creationists.
G: What is the relationship between this theory and other prevalent conspiracy theories of recent years, like the anti-vaccine movement or QAnon?
KW: There’s a large overlap between Flat Earth and other conspiracy communities, and I think that’s getting stronger. When I first started looking into Flat Earth around 2017, I did feel like it was a more contained theory. If you were on a Flat Earth Facebook page, much of what you would read would be strictly related to Flat Earth. [That’s] not necessarily the case anymore. If you’re on one of those pages, you are very likely to run into multiple posts about vaccine conspiracy theories. And vice versa: I’m always on other conspiracy movements’ pages and channels, and I see a lot of Flat Earth popping up there, too. They all rely on discarding a certain trust in institutions and establishing new voices as credible.
G: What is the end goal of Flat Eartherism? What do followers think will happen if their movement takes hold?
KW: It’s a good question, and there’s not one single answer, but a lot of Flat Earthers — depending on their belief in why there’s a Flat Earth cover-up — believe that, when the flat earth is finally revealed, that it will usher in a new era of peace or religious enlightenment, things that conveniently align with their vision of utopia. I’ve had people tell me that there’s going to be a societal breakdown, but that we will rebuild a more enlightened, Christly version of society.
I’ve also had people tell me their personal dreams for what happens when everyone wakes up. Someone told me that he thought that he would be very famous because he was one of the only people who believed in Flat Earth and was preaching that from the beginning. And I don’t think it’s just Flat Earthers who hold that belief. If you look at, say, QAnon believers, they will often talk about how they will be revered and respected among their family members when the truth comes out and they’re shown not to be fools, but actually the only enlightened people.
G: Is this movement dangerous? Should we be concerned about the fact that it is growing and picking up steam?
KW: I don’t think Flat Earth in itself is as dangerous as some other conspiracy movements. Certain movements, like the anti-vaccine movement or movements to discredit the democratic process, are much more immediately harmful. But, that said, all of these conspiracy theories are in communication with each other. They’re all recruiting across movement lines.
Conspiracy theories have always been useful to extremist movements [because they] work on a very us-versus-them logic. They posit an in-group of people who is among a small, privileged set to know this information, and an out group which is either willfully blind or actively plotting against them. And that structure has been very useful over time to weaponize against marginalized groups that people want to make a scapegoat.
What I found is that it’s helpful to try and understand the emotional reasons someone buys into a conspiracy theory and to try and address what it is, emotionally, that a theory is providing someone. Do they like the sense of community they get in that theory? Is it offering them answers that makes them feel safe and stable? If so, is it possible to replace those feelings and replicate them in a more reality-based model?
There’s a tendency to think of conspiracy theorists as tinfoil hatters, as crazy people. But the processes are really ones that we’re all susceptible to. Everybody does have a conspiratorial streak. It’s something that we turn to when we feel like we don’t have enough information, or we don’t want to believe the information in front of us. And so, I think it’s important … when we try to get people out of conspiracy theories, to go into it with the understanding that this is a normal thought process. Maybe we can bring that empathy to those conversations and use that as a basis for bringing people back to reality.
Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.