I’ve watched hundreds of flat-earth videos to learn how conspiracy theories spread — and what it could mean for fighting misinformation

Around the world, and against all scientific evidence, some people believe that the round shape of the Earth is either an unproven theory or an elaborate hoax. Polls from YouGov America in 2018 and FDU in 2022 found that up to 11% of Americans think the Earth could be flat.

While it’s tempting to dismiss “flat Earthlings” as mildly amusing, we ignore their arguments at our peril. Polls show that there is an overlap between conspiracy theories, some of which can serve as gateways for radicalization. QAnon and the Great Replacement Theory, for example, have proven deadly more than once.

By studying how Flat Earthers talk about their beliefs, we can learn how they make their points appealing to their audiences and, in turn, learn what causes misinformation to spread online.

In a recent study, my colleague Tomas Nilsson from Linnaeus University and I analyzed hundreds of YouTube videos in which people claim the Earth is flat. We paid attention to their debating techniques to understand the structure of their arguments and how they make them sound rational.

One strategy they use is to take sides in existing debates. People deeply committed 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 identity in the group and are more willing to believe their allies rather than their perceived adversaries – a phenomenon sociologists call neo-tribalism.

The problem arises when people internalize misinformation as part of their identity. While news articles can be verified, personal beliefs cannot. When conspiracy theories are part of someone’s value system or worldview, it’s hard to challenge them.

The Three Themes of the Flat Earth Theory

In analyzing these videos, we have observed that Flat Earthers are taking advantage of the ongoing culture wars by inserting their own arguments into the logic of, primarily, three main debates. These debates are long-standing and can be very personal for participants on either side.

The first is the debate over the existence of God, which dates back to antiquity, and is based on reason rather than observation. People are already debating atheism versus faith, evolution versus creationism, and the Big Bang versus intelligent design. What the flat earthers are doing is establishing their case within the long-standing struggle of the Christian right, claiming that atheists use pseudoscience – evolution, the Big Bang and the round Earth – to drive people away from God.

A common flat-earth refrain that draws from 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 apes than you…they invented the round Earth because God can’t be above you if He is also below you, 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 going up 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 easily controlled if they believe what they are told rather than their own eyes. Indeed, the Earth appears flat to the naked eye. The Flat Earthers see themselves as part of a community of unsung heroes, fighting against the tyranny of an elite that makes the public disbelieve what they see.

The third theme is based on the “free-thought” argument, which goes back to the heated debate over the presence or absence of God in the text of the American constitution. This secular view holds that rational people should not believe in authority or dogma – instead, they should trust only their own reason and experience. Freethinkers are wary of experts who use “theoretical knowledge” or “absurd mathematics” that laymen cannot 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.

Possible counter-arguments

It’s hard to fight misinformation on social media when people internalize it as a personal belief. Fact-checking can be ineffective and backfire, as misinformation becomes personal opinion or value.

Responding to Flat Earthers (or other conspiracy theorists) requires understanding the logic that makes their arguments compelling. For example, if you know they find arguments from authority unconvincing, then choosing a government scientist as the spokesperson for a counter-argument may be ineffective. Instead, it may be more appealing to provide an in-house experience that anyone can replicate.

If you can identify the rationality behind their specific beliefs, then a counter-argument can engage that logic. Group insiders are often the key to this – only a spokesperson with impeccable credentials as a devout Christian can tell you don’t need Flat Earth beliefs to stay true to your faith.

Overall, beliefs like the Flat Earth Theory, QAnon, and the Great Replacement Theory thrive because they appeal to a sense of group identity under attack. Even misinformation and outlandish conspiracies can seem rational if they fit into existing grievances. Since social media debates only require the posting of content, participants create a feedback loop that solidifies misinformation as viewpoints that cannot be verified.

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