As the last few years have made achingly clear, people around the world find themselves deeply in the grip of the age of conspiracy theory. Where conspiracism was once relegated to whispers in back rooms and pseudonymous rumour-mongering on niche message boards, today conspiracy theories pour into our lives from every angle.
It used to be unusual to find someone willing to share with you their belief in an alternate version of reality; these days we need only glance at our social media of choice – or, indeed, an alarming proportion of mainstream politics – to be confronted with distortions of the truth and sage warnings of hidden, malevolent forces at play. Ordinary people from all walks of life find themselves sucked into the rabbit hole, spreading misinformation and paranoia.
A once-in-a-lifetime pandemic has certainly not helped, but long before COVID-19 put conspiracy theories around vaccination and depopulation front and centre, and even before the QAnon movement feverishly mistook a 4chan troll for a prophet, it was a different grand narrative that caught the eye and caused a section of society to Question Everything: the flat earth movement.
Understanding why so many people in the late 2010s found themselves questioning the shape of the world – a fact which humanity had established far beyond reasonable doubt several millennia earlier – is a task no shortage of researchers have undertaken. And while some writers try to make sense of the modern conspiratorial mindset through a focus on the psychology of believers, others favour a more anthropological approach, aiming to understand how we got to where we are today, which actors played their part along the way, and what forces amplified their voice.
“Off the Edge Flat Earthers, Conspiracy Culture, and Why People Will Believe Anything”, by Daily Beast journalist Kelly Weill, is very much in this latter category, tracking the growth of the flat earth movement, from the early 19th century to its digital-age peak, and beyond. It is, as best as I can tell, the first book to cover in-depth the Flat Earth movement since the theory and its devoted followers re-emerged in the late 2010s, and it does both an admirable and entertaining job.
Weill’s fascination with the flat earth movement (a fascination I share) is clear to see, not just in her recollections of time spent talking to and meeting with believers, but also in the historical research she draws on. No true telling of the modern flat earth movement could explain the appeal of the theory without introducing the reader to the cast of characters on whose back the contemporary belief has been built, and Off the Edge does an excellent job in taking the reader through highlights of the progenitors of the modern flat earth belief.
Included, of course, is a detailed back story on Samuel Rowbotham – the infamous “Parallax”, from whose Zetetic Astronomy pamphlet so much of the current movement’s primary theories have been lifted (indeed the hugely influential Flat Earth book/video 200 Proofs the Earth is Not a Spinning Ball, released in 2015 by Eric Dubay, republishes many of Rowbotham’s original diagrams in full). It is unclear whether many modern flat earthers are fully aware of the full history of the man who is very much the intellectual origin of their worldview – from Rowbotham’s time in a scandal-ridden commune to his brief spell selling soda water as a cure for mortality.
Following Rowbotham, Weill’s quickly takes us on a tour of the other key figures in the flat earth history – from William Carpenter and John Hampden, to John Dowie, to the aristocrat Lady Elizabeth Blount (author of possibly history’s only adventure-novel-cum-musical-cum-flat-earth-treatise), through to the 20th century figures of the Flat Earth Society: Samuel Shenton and Charles K Johnston.
However, as entertaining as the history of the flat earth is, it is once Weill has brought us back to the relatively present day that the relevance of Off the Edge really starts to become apparent. Weill lays out the ways in which the Flat Earth movement grew, and was allowed to grow by platforms and tech companies who amplified and proliferated the gospel of flat earth, from shady networks of crosslinked conspiracy websites gaming Google’s search ranking, to the YouTube algorithm and its indiscriminate amplification of flat earth videos.
Notably, the book describes a 2017 experiment by a former employee at YouTube, where a search query on the platform about the flat earth returned more than a third of results arguing that the earth was flat – while 90% of videos actively recommended to viewers by YouTube put forward arguments for the flat earth, even when the viewer had made no effort to seek out flat earth material.
While YouTube and social media platforms may have subsequently adjusted their algorithms to deprioritise flat earth content, their role in growing the movement should not be underestimated – especially as the same flaws in the technical forces which accelerated the flat earth movement to prominence existed and were exploited by the QAnon movement, and most recently by movements promoting anti-vaccine myths and even white supremacists “Great replacement” conspiracy theories.
The uglier side of the flat earth conspiracy theory is not neglected by Weill, as she notes the ease in which flat earth believers would parrot fascist and antisemitic talking points. It is a point which my own experience echoes: having spent over a year touring a talk on my own research into the flat earth movement, one of the first questions I’d find myself asking of a flat earther who approached me after an event was what they thought about the Holocaust. After more than 40 lectures, and dozens of flat earth audience members, I met only two who believed the Holocaust was a real event.
Above all, while Off the Edge is an entertaining and informative read on the history and growth of the modern flat earth movement, its biggest strength is in Weill’s attitude toward flat earth believers. It would be easy for the book to have a scornful, mocking or superior tone – indeed, as the majority of skeptical coverage of this topic has taken – but Weill instead keeps sight of the humanity of flat earth believers, never more so than when discussing her relationship with Mike Hughes, the daredevil stuntman who died during an experiment with his homemade rocket. Weill describes Mike as a friend, and the chapter that covers his experiments and his subsequent accident is delicately handled.
For those of us who argue, as is the position of this magazine, that skepticism needs to be conducted with respect, compassion and humility, Off the Edge is an invaluable and deeply human look at a movement which, while divorced from reality in many ways, inhabits the same (spherical) space as the rest of us. It is only by understanding why people are drawn to a grand narrative conspiracy theory that we can start to be effective in helping them challenge those beliefs.
“Off the Edge: Flat Earthers, Conspiracy Culture, and Why People Will Believe Anything”, by Kelly Weill, is available now.