You would think that one flat earth model was one too many. But last week there was a Flat Earth Conference in Denver that Kelli Weill attended. She says this conference gave wider publicity to the fact that the group behind the conference is at odds with the Flat Earth Society and that they have different models.
The Flat Earth Society, by its own admission in the statement, has nothing to do with the Flat Earth Conference though. In fact, they have rivaling views about the planet.
Conference organizers believe Earth is a flat disc covered by a dome, while the society describes Earth as a flat disc without a dome. (Both are wrong, of course.) Whereas conference-goers repeatedly claimed that “space is fake,” the society previously told The Daily Beast that space travel might be possible, but “cost-prohibitive.”
I used to wonder if the people who attended these events were just having a good time, like cosplayers at Comic-Con, and not serious. But it seems that I am wrong. In her earlier report on the attendees at the conference, Ward says that they appeared to be true believers and that the movement took off about three years ago and attracts people who have an affinity for all manner of fringe beliefs and conspiracy theories. The largest group on Facebook boasts 127,000 members.
On the first day of the conference, I ask Flat Earthers when they converted. When did they chuck out the globe, renounce outer space as fake, and decide we live on a flat plane covered by a dome?
The answer, for most, is three years ago. That’s when some of the movement’s biggest names launched YouTube channels with hours-long videos explaining not so much why the Earth is flat (it isn’t) but why elements of the “globe model” are suspicious, particularly when they clash with a literal reading of the Bible.
“August 2015,” Ginny, a California woman tells me. That’s when a friend forwarded her a video series on Flat Earth. “I spent like three nights wide awake and then I was hooked.”
Conference speaker Joshua Swift tells me a popular Flat Earth video “woke him up” to the movement. “It came on autoplay,” he says. “So I didn’t actively search for Flat Earth. Even months before, I was listening to Alex Jones.”
So it looks like we can blame YouTube for this particular nonsense.
I ask a number of Flat Earthers about their politics. Many are politically disengaged (“your vote doesn’t count,” three people tell me), but loosely conservative. Most are Christian. Some, if you inquire long enough, say they’ll have to completely rebuild society after everyone realizes the world is flat.
This crowd isn’t necessarily far right. But the openness to extremes and a tendency toward conservative Christianity means far-right language leaks into conversation throughout the conference.
Conference-goers are exceedingly kind. A family invites me to breakfast, where they tell me that druids are real and the Sandy Hook massacre was fake. This is just what she’d tell me if I were her kid, the mother explains.
The interesting question is whether believing this causes any actual harm to the people. Maybe the harm is not direct (other than being thought of as kooky by their family, friend, and acquaintances) but consists of opportunity costs, in that believing such things leaves no room for beliefs that might benefit them more.