Off the Edge: An Interview with Kelly Weill

Shane Burley


When I was a sophomore in high school, I found out that some people thought the Earth was flat. In an effort to give us an example of how even the most basic facts of the world were up for debate, our teacher told us about the Flat Earth Society. While the fringe of the fringe, they had persisted in the way that only die-hard believers could. My curiosity came from what I assumed was an inflexible reality: this absurd idea could attain popularity, and certainly never to the point that it would be dangerous to anyone.

The growth of the Flat Earth movement has been aided, in part, by the pervasive belief that this eccentric oddity was merely something to laugh about. The explosive growth in conspiracy theories the last decade has likely changed that equation for many, particularly as thousands, maybe even millions, question basic facts—as basic as whether we live on a spinning globe. Fueled by opportunistic YouTube algorithms and unmanaged Facebook groups, a community has revived the Flat Earth theory and repackaged it for a country in which proliferating conspiracy theories are increasingly rupturing consensus reality. That same energy pushed Trump into office (and may a second time), sustained denial about his 2020 electoral defeat, and has led a sizable portion of the Republican Party to believe that their opponents are a coordinated Luciferian cabal of infant bloodsuckers.

Kelly Weill started covering the Flat Earthers back in 2017, was one of the first reporters to really see that they might become a notable force among those who crow about their apocalyptic conspiracy of choice. Her new book, Off the Edge: Flat Earthers, Conspiracy Culture, and Why People Will Believe Anything, takes readers through the history of the modern Flat Earth movement and how it was revived in the social media age to become a “theory of everything” for a disaffected class of online searchers. In this interview, we talk a bit about what’s running under the surface in the Flat Earth movement, how this community relates to other political and social trends, and what we can do about this widening break with reality.

[Ed. note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.]

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Shane Burley: So for people who have been living under a rock deep in the flat plain known as Earth, what is the Flat Earth theory, and why is it abuzz in conspiracy circles?

Kelly Weill: Flat Earth Theory posits that Earth is flat—that it is disc-shaped. Most theorists these days will say it is surrounded by an ice wall, and further enclosed in a dome. Almost like a snow globe.

SB: You take us through the history in the book starting back in the 19th century, where some renegade preachers started pushing this idea as a kind of Biblical literalism. But it remained largely unpersuasive for decades—so much so that the Flat Earth Society, a group whose assumed purpose was to spread the message, was basically defunct. What brought it back into the world, and why has it exploded now in a way it never did before?

KW: I think a lot of the recent explosion has to do with the Internet. We’ve seen the way that social media algorithms and YouTube algorithms really prioritize sensational content and content that inspires pretty dramatic emotions. Social media also lets people build community where it might have been difficult for them to form these communities in the past.

If you were a Flat Earther in the ’70s, it was really hard to find another one. So in the social media age, even if there aren’t a lot of Flat Earthers, it’s really easy for them to network, and it’s really easy for them to find more material in their field.

SB: A mega-conspiracy theory like Flat Earth would require such a systemic and widespread architecture of deception that it really makes me wonder who could possibly benefit from lying about the Earth’s shape. In Flat Earth mythology, who is lying, and why?

KW: I have asked so many Flat Earthers who is lying and gotten so many answers. Some will say they don’t know. Then, the next level up from that is people who say the world’s governments are lying, politicians are lying, NASA’s lying. And then there’s another level where people tap this theory into older and, I think, often a lot more nefarious conspiracy theories where they start to say it’s the New World Order, or more explicitly, they’ll blame the Jews. It’s very difficult to ascertain why they think somebody would do this, but their explanations tend to enter on narratives of control or narratives of deception, that people are covering up the Flat Earth model. Because if people knew it, then they would be somehow liberated. They wouldn’t have to trust the government, or would have a different, supposedly better, religious outlook.

SB: How does this relate to the larger world of conspiracy theories? This reminds me of what Michael Barkun called “superconspiracies,” which rope in just about every world event, institution, and population into a totalizing narrative that tries to explain everything.

KW: I think there absolutely is a trend towards these all-encompassing conspiracy theories. Flat Earth is really different from something like 9/11 Trutherism, which somebody can be interested in without it completely eclipsing their worldview. Flat Earth, not only does it posit a (literal) worldview, but it’s also big enough to encompass a whole spectrum of other beliefs. If you believe the Earth is flat, then you really have to tear down all your priors and invite in a whole new set of information. When these theories are this sprawling, they have to touch on religion, politics, health. So I’ve never met a Flat Earther who is only a Flat Earther. They’re always Flat Earthers and anti-vaxxers, or often people who are adjacent to the QAnon conspiracy theory. It’s a whole belief system, rather than just one.

SB: How does this cross over with QAnon?

KW: I think there is a significant and actually growing overlap with QAnon. I’ve noticed that shift taking place in the past few years since I first started monitoring Flat Earth in 2017. Granted, QAnon was young at the time. But I saw Flat Earth as a more siloed conspiracy theory at first, and I didn’t see it cross-pollinating with other conspiracy theories as much. But nowadays, if I’m on a Flat Earth Facebook page, I will see a lot more interplay between Flat Earth and political or health conspiracy theories, like the anti-vaccine movement. Platforms like Facebook and Telegram can interlink with each other. It’s all built on sharing information across channels. So there’s both a natural curiosity to find out about neighboring conspiracy theories, along with some very deliberate recruitment.

I tell a story in the book from the last Flat Earth conference where I was at and I ran into these two women who were giving out free jewelry that had QAnon symbols. I asked them if they were even Flat Earthers, and they said, “No, not really.” But they wanted to spread their message everywhere they could and thought Flat Earthers would be really receptive. That was extremely alarming to me, because I think they were right, and it shows a real canniness in the modern conspiracy world to go look for potential allies.

SB: That same attitude seems to come from the far right. The fascist publisher Arktos sponsored the 2017 Flat Earth Conference, and white nationalist publications like Red Ice Media were covering it. It wasn’t so much that these far-right areas seemed to have sympathies with the theory as much as they find that people open to conspiracy thinking might also be open to their own ideas.

KW: White nationalists definitely see Flat Earth as an avenue for recruiting. I think some of them are earnest Flat Earthers, but a lot of them understand that this is a really destabilizing belief. When someone takes on the Flat Earth belief system, it really blows off the doors to what they believe is possible. They’re willing to take on new information because so many conspiracy narratives are really built on this old infrastructure of antisemitism. It’s easy to smuggle in their talking points to something like Flat Earth, which is not inherently related to antisemitism. So it’s a useful tool for them.

I think this even came as a shock to other white supremacists. I remember there was a Daily Stormer post where the neo-Nazi editor Andrew Anglin was making fun of Flat Earth and his commenters got so angry at him because they really believed it. It was one of the only times I’ve seen Anglin, who is an unrepentant fascist, sort of take a step back and say that he didn’t even want to discuss it. Making a mea culpa about it.

SB: What role has the larger conservative movement and Republican Party’s shift towards conspiracism had in this movement? Has this general acceptance of conspiracy theories as a foundational part of American conservatism helped Flat Earth to appear more reasonable?

KW: I think the Republican Party has a huge role in how modern conspiracy theories have thrived. I’ve talked a lot in this book about how there has been a technological component, but it’s very true that one of the two major parties is making conspiracy theories part of its platform. I think those theories really enable people to overlook the Party’s failings. You can look at the Republican platform right now, or at least the legislation that a lot of Republican politicians are pushing, and see it as kind of empty and grievance-based. You have these conspiracy theories becoming part of Republican identity. They allow people to make excuses for their party. If you believe that Hilary Clinton is involved in satanic sex trafficking, then actual political agendas are a little irrelevant. It makes the space for fantasy, and it disguises a hollowness in legitimate political aims.

SB: It almost strips the ideology out of it. By suggesting that there is a global satanic conspiracy, it makes all of their positions appear as though they are triaging crisis, rather than arguing for a definable worldview.

KW: Absolutely. I saw this Trump email that went out last week, and it was so apt to me because it said, “This is the scandal of the century and the mainstream media isn’t paying any attention to it.” But it didn’t say what the scandal was. So we are seeing the empty framework of the conspiracy theory act as a tentpole to a really empty political platform.

SB: In what ways do you think that Flat Earth theory is dangerous? It so often gets dismissed because of how “out there” it seems.

KW: I think Flat Earth is dangerous for the believers. I think it’s a very isolating theory. Every person I speak to in Flat Earth has become alienated in some way from family or friends, or from a broader sense of reality. I don’t think that’s healthy at all. People have lost jobs, etc.

It’s also a recruitment vector. People don’t tend to stay just in Flat Earth, they go looking for other conspiracy theories. They go looking for medical hoaxes, which are deeply harmful. They go looking for answers to political questions and land in worlds like QAnon and Pizzagate, which have led to really graphic political violence.

Flat Earth is interesting to a lot of people because it sounds so loony and it sounds funny. (And I often find elements of it kind of funny.) But it never ends at somebody believing the planet is a different shape. It has real social consequences, and it leads to other, more immediately harmful beliefs.

SB: So you talk in the book about attempts at combating this, particularly by tech companies, which have been really hit or miss. What kind of approaches do you think are actually helpful in approaching something with such a profound capability to distort people’s reality?

KW: Tech companies have done a lot to fuel Flat Earth. The most obvious example is YouTube. Most Flat Earthers that you speak to right now got into it via YouTube. That’s because, starting around 2014, people realized that Flat Earth videos performed very, very well in the YouTube recommendation algorithm. You could be watching something only tangentially related, like a video about outer space or religion or 9/11 Truth, and YouTube would recommend the Flat Earth video to you. We can speculate that that’s because really outrageous video titles and conspiracy claims perform very well. People click on them because they’re curious. For years, Flat Earth videos were getting funneled into people’s feeds, and people were converting on the basis of things that appeared before them. I’ve had Flat Eathers tell me that the theory found them.

YouTube, somewhat to its credit, changed the algorithm after a lot of criticism in 2019. They said, “Okay, we’re going to stop artificially promoting certain conspiracy theories.” The one they led with, and that they put in all their press releases about the algorithm change, is Flat Earth. I think they actually alluded to Flat Earth in those press materials because it seems kind of harmless, and they don’t want to say that QAnon or something else like it is running rampant on their platform. So they have changed, and it is to their credit they made it harder to find Flat Earth Videos. I’ve spoken with a lot of Flat Earther YouTubers who say, “Yeah, we took a massive hit.”

But it’s also a little late. That algorithm ran for five years, during a time when people could do a lot of networking that wasn’t necessarily algorithmically driven. People could make Facebook groups and forums and IRL meet-ups. And now that infrastructure exists, even if the algorithm that helped build it is gone.♦

 

 


Shane Burley is the author of Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It (AK Press, 2017and Why We Fight: Essays on Fascism, Resistance, and Surviving the Apocalypse (AK Press, 2021). His work has appeared in places such as NBC News, Al Jazeera, The Daily Beast, The Independent, Jacobin, The Baffler, Truthout, Political Research Associates, In These Times, and Full Stop.

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