Around the world, and against all scientific evidence, a segment of the population believes that the earth’s round shape is either an unproven theory or an extensive farce. Opinion polls by YouGov America in 2018 and FDU in 2022 found that as many as 11% of Americans believe the earth could be flat.
While it’s tempting to dismiss “flat earth dwellers” as slightly amusing, we ignore their arguments on our danger. Poll shows that there is an overlap between conspiracy theories, some of which could serve as gateways to radicalization. QAnon and the great replacement theory, for example, have proven deadly more than once.
By studying how flat earthlings talk about their beliefs, we can learn how to make their arguments appealing to their audience, and in turn learn what causes disinformation to spread online.
In a recent study, my colleague Tomas Nilsson and I at Linnaeus University analyzed hundreds of YouTube videos in which people argue that the earth is flat. We paid attention to their debate techniques to understand the structure of their arguments and how they make it appear rational.
One strategy they use is to take sides in existing debates. People who are deeply attached to one side of a culture war are likely to use any and all arguments (including truths, half-truths, and opinions) if it helps them win. People invest their identity in the group and are more willing to believe fellow allies rather than perceived opponents – a phenomenon that sociologists call neo-tribalism.
The problem arises when people internalize disinformation as part of their identity. While news articles can verify facts, personal beliefs can not. When conspiracy theories are part of someone’s value system or worldview, it’s hard to challenge.
The three themes of flat-earth theory
In analyzing these videos, we noted that flat Earthlings benefit from ongoing cultural wars by inserting their own arguments into the logic of essentially three main debates. These debates last a long time and can be very personal for participants on both sides.
First is the debate about the existence of God, which goes back to antiquity, and is built on reason, rather than observation. People are already debating atheism against religion, evolution against creationism, and Big Bang against intelligent design. What flat earth dwellers are doing is setting up their argument within the long struggle of the Christian right, arguing that atheists use pseudoscience – evolution, the Big Bang and around the Earth – to sway people away from God.
A common flat Earth dweller refrain that joins in religious beliefs is that God can physically inhabit the heavens above us only in a flat plane, not a sphere. As one flat Earth 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 about you… they invented the round Earth because God cannot be above you if He is also below. you are not, and they have invented an infinite universe, to make you believe that God is far from you.
The second theme is a conspiracy theory that sees ordinary people stand against a ruling elite of corrupt politicians and celebrities. Knowledge is power, and this theory argues that those in power conspire to keep knowledge to themselves by distorting the basic nature of reality. The message is that people are easily controlled if they believe what they are told rather than their own eyes. The earth indeed looks flat with the naked eye. Flat Earthers see themselves as part of a community of unsung heroes, fighting the tyranny of an elite that makes the public believe what they see.
The third theme is based on the “free-thinking” argument, which dates back to the enthusiastic debate about the presence or absence of God in the text of the American Constitution. This secularist view argues that rational people should not believe in authority or dogma – rather they should just trust their own reason and experience. Freethinkers distrust experts who use “book knowledge” or “nonsense math” that laymen cannot repeat. Plate dwellers 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, like a contemporary Galileo.
Counteracting disinformation on social media is difficult when people internalize it as a personal belief. Fact checking can be ineffective and can backfire because disinformation becomes a personal opinion or value.
Responding to flat Earth (or other conspiracy theorists) requires that you understand the logic that makes their arguments convincing. For example, if you know that they find arguments of authority unconvincing, it may be ineffective to choose a political scientist as a spokesperson for a counter-argument. Instead, it may be more tempting to suggest a homemade experiment that anyone can repeat.
If you can identify the rationality behind their specific beliefs, a counter-argument can grasp that logic. Insiders of the group are often the key to this – only a spokesman with impeccable credentials as a committed Christian can say that you do not need the flat-earth beliefs to stay true to your faith.
In general, beliefs such as flat-earth theory, QAnon, and the large-scale replacement theory are growing because they appeal to a sense of group identity that is being attacked. Even far-fetched misinformation and conspiracies can seem rational if it fits into existing grievances. Since debates on social media only require the posting of content, participants create a feedback loop that reinforces disinformation as points of view that facts cannot be verified.