During one of my most recent visits to my favourite online streaming service, Netflix, I came across a newly added documentary that quickly caught my attention. ‘Behind The Curve’ was the title of the documentary that made its way to the ‘trending now’ segment on Netflix’s front page and as a doco-enthusiast I couldn’t resist the temptation to press play.
Behind The Curve delves into the lives of a number of self-proclaimed ‘flat earthers’ – people who solemnly believe the globe is flat- and a number of scientific experts to debate this suggestion. The most interesting aspect of this documentary to me wasn’t the theory that we live under a dome or that Antarctica is a 360-degree landmass made up of ice that surrounds the planet and holds in the oceans, but the speed at which this conspiracy theory has taken off due to social media.
Flat earth is not a recent concept. The original Flat Earth Society was formed in the 1950’s and slowly grew to a 3,500-subscriber count by the 1990’s. In 1997 a house fire destroyed the Flat Earth Society’s library and membership roster and shortly after, the final few organisers died too. This could have been the end of the Flat Earth Society…. If it wasn’t for the internet.
In 2004, the Flat Earth Society made a comeback in the form of an online discussion forum. Shortly after the creation of the modernised online Flat Earth Society, social media giants such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter were introduced, providing an even larger platform for flat earthers to communicate, discuss, and share their theories.
Before the introduction of the internet it took upwards of 50 years for the Flat Earth Society to reach just over 3,000 members, yet in just a decade there are a multitude of Facebook pages, Twitter users, and Instagram pages with hundreds of thousands of likes. There are YouTube videos with millions of views and very active subreddits, along with actual celebrities, social media influences, and NBA stars supporting the flat earth theory.
This concept led me to a number of potential research question:
To what extent has social media influenced the belief in flat earth?
Is the flat earth theory turning people into freethinkers or groupthinkers?
Why are people interested in flat earth?
How has social media excelled the growth rate of flat earthers?
Is the flat earth theory ruining future education?
Social media gives individuals a platform to question and challenge societal norms and allows the average person to potentially reach the same number of people as a traditional television broadcaster.
Social media has levelled the media landscape and allows everyday people to have an equal voice. This concept can be powerful and positive, forming online communities to make a change. Everyday people around the world now have the ability to be a part of something huge thanks to social media, such as #BlackLivesMatter and the March For Our Lives campaign.
Despite the positive side to social media, there is also a negative and damaging side to it. Uneducated people now have access to communities that confirm, grow, and support their beliefs. Anti-vaxxers and climate change deniers are among some of the growing online groups that can be dangerous for our future.
I find the idea of flat earth extremely interesting. On one hand it allows people to question their beliefs, institutions, and everything they have once known, which can be a positive experience as it helps create critical thinkers. On the other hand, the concept of flat earth may ignite one’s confirmation bias, leading them down a path of searching for information that solely confirms their beliefs and diminishes their ability for critical thinking.
The rise of the flat earth theory also contradicts thousands of years of evidence backed up by respected scientists and researchers, which says a lot about how science is perceived by the public. Today, opinions of experts, scientists, and teachers are perceived as less reliable than information found on a bizarre website, which can be detrimental to the future of education. (Brizova et al., 2018).
I would like to focus a part of my final report discussing the idea of confirmation bias and how social media propels this through echo chambers. People currently see more personalised content specifically targeted to them based on past behaviours or social interactions. Recommendation systems suggest items in which one is more likely to click on based on previous purchases, past actions of similar users, or other behavioural patterns of the individual and their friends. (Nikolov et al., 2015).
I believe the rise of the flat earth theory has provoked conversation about the power of social media in influencing people’s perception of the world around (or should I say, under) them. I am excited to explore this topic in more depth as I develop a more succinct research question and learn about the impact of social media.
Břízová, L., Gerbec, K., Šauer, J. and Šlégr, J. 2018. Flat Earth theory: an exercise in critical thinking. IOP Science. https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1361-6552/aac053/meta
Nikolov D, Oliveira DFM, Flammini A, Menczer F. 2015. Measuring online social bubbles. PeerJ Computer Science 1:e38 https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj-cs.38