Around the world, and against all scientific evidence, a small segment of the population does not believe that the shape of the Earth is spherical. Polls from YouGov America in 2018 and the FDU in 2022 found that 11% of Americans believe the Earth may be flat.
But what are the arguments of those who believe in the "flat Earth"?
By studying how flat earthers talk about their beliefs, we can learn how they make their arguments appealing to their audiences, and then learn what makes misinformation spread online.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.
In a recent study, Tomas Nilsson of Linnaeus University and Carlos Diaz Ruiz, Assistant Professor, Hanken School of Economics analyzed hundreds of YouTube videos in which people claim that the Earth is flat. They paid attention to debating techniques to understand the structure of their arguments and how to make them seem logical.
One strategy they use is to take part in already existing discussions. People who are deeply attached to only one side of a culture war are likely to make any arguments (truths, half-truths, and opinions) if it helps them win a debate. People who identify with a group are more willing to believe their allies than their opponents – a phenomenon sociologists call neo-tribalism.
The problem arises when people internalize misinformation as part of their identity. Circulating news articles can be checked, but personal beliefs cannot. When conspiracy theories are part of one's value system or worldview, it is very difficult to challenge them.
The three arguments for the flat Earth theory
In analyzing these videos, the researchers noticed that flat-Earthers take advantage of the ongoing culture wars by inserting their own "logical" arguments, mainly into three kinds of discussions. These discussions are lengthy and can be very personal for the participants on both sides.
First is the discussion of the existence of God, which dates back to antiquity, and is based on logic rather than observation. People have been debating for years about atheism or faith, evolution vs. a Creator, and the Big Bang vs. intelligent design. So what flat-Earthers are doing is placing their argument within the long-standing struggle of Christianity, arguing that atheists are using pseudoscience – evolution, the Big Bang and the Earth – to turn people away from God.
A common refrain of flat-Earthers who tread on religious beliefs is that God may reside in the heavens above us in a plane, rather than a sphere. As one flat-Earth fan 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...they invented the round earth because God can't be above you if he is too and below you, and they invented an infinite universe, to make you believe that God is far from you.
The second issue is a conspiracy theory which sees ordinary people standing 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 basic nature of reality. The message is that people are easily controlled if they believe what they are told and not their eyes. Indeed, the Earth appears flat to the naked eye.
Flat Earthers see themselves as part of a community of heroes, fighting against the tyranny of an elite that makes the public disbelieve what they see.
The third issue is based on the “free thought” argument., which dates back to a very heated debate over the presence or absence of God in the US constitution. The secular view holds that rational people should not believe in authority or dogma – instead, they should trust only their own reason and experience. Free thinkers don't trust experts who use "book knowledge" or "dumb math" that ordinary people can't reproduce.
Flat Earthers often use personal observations to test whether the Earth is round, especially through home experiments. They see themselves as visionaries and scientists of the past, something like a modern day Galileo.
Countering misinformation on social media is difficult when people externalize it as a personal belief. Fact checking can be ineffective and backfire because misinformation becomes a personal opinion or value.
Responding to Flat Earthers (or other conspiracy theorists) requires understanding the logic that makes their arguments convincing. For example, if you know that they find arguments from authority unpersuasive, then choosing a government scientist as a spokesperson for a counterargument may be ineffective. Instead, it may be more appealing to suggest a home experiment that anyone can do.
If you can determine the rationale behind their specific beliefs, then a counterargument can engage that rationale.
Overall, beliefs like the flat Earth theory are on the rise because they appeal to a sense of group identity that is under attack. Even the most far-fetched disinformation or conspiracies can seem plausible if they fit existing grievances. Since social media discussions only require content to be posted, participants create a feedback loop that reinforces misinformation with opinions that cannot be verified.