Changes in the Flat-Earth Movement

Has the Growth in the Flat-Earth Movement Flattened?

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Over the past year I’ve noticed changes in the flat-earth movement. When I began my investigation of the flat-earth movement five years ago, there was a huge amount of material promoting flat earth on the internet. At that time, it was difficult to find anything on the internet that was critical of the flat-earth movement. Now the situation has reversed: it is as nearly as difficult to find pro-flat-earth material on the internet as it was to find anti-flat-earth material five years ago. What changed? There probably are several factors at work. One factor is that the flat-earth movement may have reached saturation. There are only so many people susceptible to flat-earth arguments, particularly with the rise of internet resources countering flat-earth arguments.

Another factor is that, with their inclination toward grand conspiracy theories, many flat-earthers have turned much of their attention elsewhere. As I’ve commented previously, coronavirus has provided many opportunities for people to explore different conspiracy theories about COVID-19. These conspiracy theories probably offer a larger potential market of gullible people to prey upon than flat-earth conspiracies do.

Perhaps the most significant factor is changes in policies and algorithms of search engines and internet platforms that began in 2019.

Perhaps the most significant factor is changes in policies and algorithms of search engines and internet platforms that began in 2019. Facing widespread criticism and threats of losing certain legal protections, social media platforms and search engines changed how they recommended sites to their users. Prior to 2019, search engines and other platforms such as YouTube would recommend additional resources like ones that people had searched for. For instance, if one stumbled upon a site that suggested the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 were faked, many similar sites were recommended. An even better example is “Pizzagate.” In 2016, stories rapidly spread on the internet that some restaurants were fronts for child prostitution rings, with variations including accusations of human sacrifice and satanic rituals. Ultimately, a North Carolina man was arrested when he attacked a Washington, DC, pizza restaurant to rescue children supposedly being held there. These sorts of lurid, false stories have the potential of killing people and ruining the lives of many others (such as the North Carolina man who realized too late what a foolish mistake he had made). With these sorts of potential liabilities, it is no wonder that search engines and social media platforms made changes in their policies and algorithms.

The changes have affected all sorts of people and ideas, but flat-earthers seem to think they are the ones that have been singled out for persecution. Many of the popular flat-earth YouTube channels have been demonetized. This was a quite a hit because many owners of these sites were making considerable sums of money from advertisers. Some flat-earth YouTube channels were deleted. Meanwhile some flat-earth Facebook accounts were deleted too. What prompted these actions? Typically, it wasn’t promotion of flat earth. Rather, the deletions were due to other issues, such as promoting the notion that COVID-19 is fake. While spreading the lie that the earth is flat isn’t likely to result in the deaths of people, spreading the lie that there is no such thing as COVID-19 will end up killing people. YouTube and Facebook were concerned that they could be held financially liable in any lawsuits filed over false information about COVID-19 and other issues spread on their platforms. For remaining flat-earth YouTube videos, there were other changes. I’ve noticed that many flat-earth videos on YouTube now carry this disclaimer quoting from the Wikipedia page on the topic of flat earth:

The flat Earth model is an archaic conception of Earth's shape as a plane or disk. Many ancient cultures subscribed to a flat Earth cosmography, including Greece until the classical period, the Bronze Age  . . .

This disclaimer even appears on videos that refute flat-earth ideas, so its inclusion must be triggered by certain phrases, such as “flat earth.”

I am very conflicted about these changes in policies. While recognizing that these new restrictions were implemented in response to the danger to lives that false videos and postings on social media presented, what are the possible ramifications of these policy changes? The same sort of policies that internet behemoths have now adopted could easily be altered further to rein in creation organizations such as Answers in Genesis. Therefore, there is much potential for harm.

A Shift in Flat-Earth Promotion

Apparently, these factors have succeeded in stifling new flat-earth material on the internet. Not long ago, there were many thousands of hours of flat-earth videos, with new ones being added daily. Many of these were at least an hour long. Some were six hours long (no, I’m not exaggerating). After I had watched far too many hours of these videos than I would care to admit, I developed a technique for watching them. I would generally skip the first couple of minutes of introductory material. If at that point I saw or heard material that I already had encountered, then I would skip forward about five minutes. If there was nothing new there, I would skip forward again. Many of these videos repeated material and arguments that I had already seen. Many multi-hour videos didn’t have anything that I hadn’t seen before. With this technique, I could get through even the longest videos in a matter of minutes. Occasionally I’d be surprised by something new to me, so I would stop and pay attention to it.

However, new videos about flat earth abruptly seemed to cease around a year ago. It could be that with the recent changes in search algorithms, new flat-earth videos are just difficult to find now. However, I think that demonetization of the videos removed the profit motive, making further production of flat-earth videos pointless. The profit motive likely explains the very repetitive nature of these videos, all the while wasting much of my time with advertisements. I’ve spent much time studying the flat-earth movement, and I have continued my study even after I had come to understand many flat-earth arguments. That is why from time to time I would search out flat-earth material on the internet. That also is why I attended all three Flat Earth International Conferences (FEIC) in the United States (as I commented after the third FEIC, it doesn’t appear that there will be any more of these). When new flat-earth videos largely disappeared from the internet, I found myself at a loss to monitor new flat-earth arguments as they arose.

With the loss of flat-earth videos on the internet, I eventually learned about flat-earth audio broadcasts on the internet. Many of these originate on the platform Discord but also stream onto YouTube. While one can listen on the YouTube streams, participation on these shows requires acquiring a Discord account. Some of these programs stream part of their content freely on YouTube, but some content is available only on Discord. This is the case with a flat-earth audio program that I previously discussed.

FE 24/7

From time to time, I’ve monitored a program called 24/7 Flat Earth Discord. The name suggests that this is continually broadcast. While this may be the case on Discord, what appears on YouTube is cut up into chunks, none apparently lasting as long as 12 hours. When a segment on YouTube ends, it sometimes takes a while before the next segment begins. There are extended periods with dead air. Furthermore, many times the program merely is flat-earthers socializing among themselves with no discussion directly related to flat earth. My monitoring of this program is far from continual. I sometimes leave it on low volume while I’m working on something else so that I can occasionally pay attention to what is being said. If something piques my interest, then I stop what I’m doing and turn up the volume. It’s similar to my technique of fast-forwarding through long videos, except this is more in real time. For instance, this program is on while I am writing this, but currently there is nothing going on there that interests me. Incidentally, I have found a shocking amount of profanity on this and other channels devoted to discussion of flat earth. I’m wondering if this is an increasing trend in the flat-earth movement. I’ve noticed flat-earthers who claim to be Christians are participating in the use of profanity. I don’t understand that.

People on the FE 24/7 program invite non-flat-earthers to join the program. When they do join, guests are encouraged to answer three questions:

  1. How has the curvature of the earth been measured from ancient times up to today?
  2. What is the method of how axial rotation has been detected?
  3. How do we know that the vacuum of space exists?
As I’ve observed many times, very few people have been properly educated on the earth’s shape and other matters to answer these questions adequately at any reasonable level, let alone to meet the improper standards of flat-earthers.

As I’ve observed many times, very few people have been properly educated on the earth’s shape and other matters to answer these questions adequately at any reasonable level, let alone to meet the improper standards of flat-earthers. Consequently, most non-flat-earthers who consent to undergo this interview soon flounder about. They are encouraged by their hosts that if they don’t know the answers to questions, then it is OK to say so. Eventually, most guests avail themselves of that opportunity. When finished, the flat-earthers inform the guests that since they couldn’t answer any of the questions, then their belief that the earth is a globe is just that, a belief system, and nothing more. The flat-earthers contrast this with their own understanding that the earth is flat, thus making it a fact that the earth is flat. If guests disagree, then they are reminded that they offered no evidence for their belief (there’s that word again). Of course, the flat-earthers haven’t offered any evidence for what they believe either. Only when that is brought up are the flat-earthers on this program willing to talk about what they believe. Prior to that, the flat-earthers refuse to take any burden of proof, stating that they aren’t claiming anything. Most visitors have no idea how the discussion is being controlled and manipulated to reach a predetermined conclusion: that the earth is flat. All the while, with a tone of innocence, the flat-earthers claim they aren’t trying to convince anyone the earth is flat but just to get people to think. This is not discussion at all. Rather, it is a tactic often used by cults to rope in unsuspecting people.

Apparently, flat-earthers on this channel view these interactions as debates, though they never use that term going into these discussions (which is what they call them, at least at the beginning). Furthermore, the flat-earthers in these “debates” seem to think that truth is settled by debates. It isn’t. There are numerous examples of winners of debates arguing for something that is false. I can’t imagine how any reasonable person could conclude that defeating a woefully unprepared person in a debate could constitute proof of the position of the person who was at least slightly more prepared. But maybe that’s my problem—I’m assuming that these people arguing for flat earth are reasonable.

I often wondered what the reaction of the flat-earthers would be if someone came into their midst prepared to answer the three questions. I set up a Discord account and slipped into the server for this group several times. Usually, I was motivated to enter discussion by the desire to correct incorrect statements that I had heard. Most of the time, I was left muted for some time, and after the conversation moved on, there was not much point in hanging on, so I eventually left. On one occasion I was unmuted, so I attempted to correct a false statement the flat-earthers had made. But they weren’t interested in hearing what I had to say, and so I was quickly shown the door. The primary host of the channel unmuted me once or twice. I was a bit coy because at the time I did not want to engage in a prolonged discussion. This was particularly true if certain people I find disagreeable were active on the channel at the time, or if I was short on time necessary to devote to what could become a prolonged discussion.

My Turn at It

Recently I went onto the server, and soon the primary host of the program unmuted me and greeted me. From my Discord name (like everyone else, a pseudonym), he remembered that I had been there before and stated that I was more of a listener. I agreed, but I said that I was willing to engage in discussion this time. There were several reasons why I consented to talk on this occasion. If the people I find disagreeable were present in the program then, they weren’t saying anything. I had found the primary host to be agreeable most of the time, so he was the one regular that I thought I might be able to have a good conversation with. Since I was not particularly busy at the time and I had no upcoming appointments, I had time to talk, so it seemed like a good opportunity to answer my question of how a discussion would go with someone like me who was prepared to answer the three standard questions (and hopefully much more). The host asked what I thought the earth’s shape was. I told him the earth is a globe. He asked how sure I was of that. I responded that I was about as sure of it as anything else I could be sure of. He tried to get me to quantify my confidence, such as with a percentage. I refused to quantify it, saying that I was very confident the earth is a globe, but that as a scientist, I must recognize the possibility, however remote, that I could be wrong. I reminded him that the history of science is littered with ideas that were once considered to be true that were later discarded. The host followed up by asking what type of scientist I am and about my relevant experience. I had not offered this information, but I wasn’t going to hide it either.

The host then began to explain the three questions, and I told him that I knew the three questions already. With that, the host asked me to answer the first question about the history of measurements of the earth’s curvature. He asked me to be as detailed as possible. I began to talk about Eratosthenes’ measurement of the earth’s size, giving pertinent details such as when and where this was, along with the zenith angles of the sun Eratosthenes measured at the two locations on the June solstice (but not in the same year), and Eratosthenes’ conclusion about the size for the earth. I was just getting started with the long history of geodesy, the measurement of the earth’s shape. I was about to move on to Posidonius’ measurement of the earth’s curvature shortly after Eratosthenes’s measurement when the host interrupted me to ask if Eratosthenes had any help. I thought that question was a little strange, but I stated that we don’t have any record of that, but Eratosthenes may have had staff that assisted him in his work. But this wasn’t what the host meant. He then clarified by asking if Eratosthenes hadn’t assumed that the earth is a globe. I replied no, and I stated that the earth’s shape had already been established sometime before Eratosthenes, so he was merely building upon the work of others, a common practice in science.

It seems I can’t win—I get called out for not saying much, but later my opportunity to speak is curtailed.

Right away, the host disagreed, asserting that Eratosthenes merely assumed the earth’s spherical shape. The host soon asked when and how the earth’s spherical shape had been established. I responded that the host ought to have asked that question first. However, I proceeded with Aristotle’s book, written about 350 BC, On the Heavens. In that book, Aristotle gave four arguments for the earth’s spherical shape, two good, one not so good, and the fourth a bad argument. I began to talk about the two good reasons for the earth’s globe shape, the change in appearance of stars as one travels north and south, and the circular shape of the earth’s shadow during a lunar eclipse. On the latter, I offered that I was sure the host would disagree about the cause of eclipses, but that I hoped we could get to that question in due course. Alas, it was not to be. At this point, the host, who up to this point had given me some free rein in talking, began to dominate the conversation more and more. He kept going on and on, and since I did not want to rudely interrupt him, I didn’t have much opportunity to say more. I found this ironic. In an earlier brief conversation with this man, I didn’t say much, preferring to listen and respond to questions posed to me. There weren’t any. In that earlier conversation, the host finally asked why I wasn’t saying anything. He then admonished me that we couldn’t have a conversation if I didn’t speak, so he finally muted me (although he did so politely). But this time he kept talking, not giving me much opportunity to speak. That doesn’t facilitate discussion either. It seems I can’t win—I get called out for not saying much, but later my opportunity to speak is curtailed.

Discordant Dialog

We weren’t getting very far in discussing the first question. The problem was that he had a totally different view of what science is and how we can use science to learn about the earth’s shape and size. The host kept derisively referring to Eratosthenes’ experiment as “sticks in the sand,” a common flat-earther phrase. Flat-earthers, the host included, will not entertain any measurement unless it conforms to their terms. The only way they think the earth’s size can be measured is by looking at the earth. They assert that it is absurd to look up in the sky to determine the earth’s shape or size. Ultimately, I commented that we were at an impasse because of a fundamental disagreement about epistemology.

I soon got the answer to my question of what would happen when someone who is prepared to answer the three questions goes onto this channel. The host was not able to maneuver me into a position where he could conclude that what I know is not knowledge but is just a belief system. This derailed his normal script, so he had to take a different tack. He declared that I was not being honest (a polite way of calling me a liar) and told me that he would not continue the conversation with someone who was not honest. I don’t understand how he thinks I am dishonest. Perhaps he thinks his epistemology is so obviously correct that if anyone disagrees with it, they must be lying to himself. The host explained that due to my dishonesty, I was not welcome on the channel, and so he booted me. I assume this means that I am no longer welcome on this channel, so I shall not go there again, even if I could. It’s a pity, because I regularly hear false things proclaimed on this channel. If I thought I could have some civil discussions on this channel to try to correct these things, I’d be willing to do so, but I don’t think that is possible. Oh well, I tried.

During our half-hour conversation, there were several other flat-earthers on the channel who tried to jump into the conversation, but the host waved them off. I appreciated that. I’ve heard maulings on this channel when a gang of flat-earthers pile onto a poor guest, firing so many questions that the poor guest has little opportunity to answer. But it doesn’t matter because they aren’t listening to the answers anyway. For the next hour, the host opened the floodgates, and much discussion about me between the flat-earthers ensued. As the discussion went on, I heard mischaracterizations of what I had said. The next day, the host returned to discussing me. Other flat-earthers not on the channel at the time had heard about the conversation and figured out who I was and informed the host, who apparently had never heard of me. Consequently, the host learned about my book, Falling Flat: A Refutation of Flat Earth Arguments. This initiated another hour of discussion among the flat-earthers similar to the one the day before. My book was discussed a bit, but it was obvious none of them had read it because there was no substantive discussion of it. As before, inaccurate things were said.

One of the inaccuracies was that we had had a debate. Funny, that word wasn’t used before and during my time on the channel. Rather, it was called a “discussion.” There is a tremendous difference between having a discussion and having a debate. For one thing, a debate usually has a resolution to debate. For another, a debate normally has rules and a format mutually agreed upon by both parties prior to the debate. Furthermore, a debate normally has a neutral moderator to enforce the rules and format. Nevertheless, the flat-earthers on this channel kept calling our conversation a debate and unanimously declared the host the winner of the debate. But if that were the case, what was the outcome? Recall that it was my “opponent” who unilaterally decided to end the “debate.” If one party of a debate abruptly ends the debate, then that party forfeits. Therefore, if this was a debate, then I won by default. Again, I’m not claiming this was a debate: that is their claim.

Conclusion

I’m speaking to people who are looking for answers, not people who think they’ve already found the answers.

I have never engaged in a debate with a flat-earther, nor do I have any intention of doing so for a host of reasons that I don’t care to go into. Nor do I make it my goal to try to convince flat-earthers that they are wrong. Initially I tried that, but I quickly found it is not productive. I’m more than happy to discuss the earth’s shape with flat-earthers, but I’ve found that flat-earthers aren’t interested. They are so convinced that the earth is flat that they probably think it is a waste of time discussing the matter with me. Rather, flat-earthers are only interested in converting others to their way of thinking. I suppose they must view me as a lost cause as much as I view them as being a lost cause. You may ask why I continue to write and speak about the flat-earth movement. As I’ve said before, it’s not for the sake of flat-earthers. My audience is people who have heard about the flat-earth movement and are looking for answers to questions that they can’t answer on their own. That is, I’m speaking to people who are looking for answers, not people who think they’ve already found the answers.

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