Flat Earth: Inside a Conspiracy Theory That’s Hit the Internet

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They are convinced: the Earth is not round; it is flat. Their nickname? The Platists. Born in England in the 1950s, this community fell into oblivion before taking on a new lease of life thanks to social networks. But even among the platists, not everyone believes in the same theory. According to the prevailing theory, the blue planet would be as flat as a disc and a huge wall of ice would surround it so that we could not go overboard. For others, a giant invisible dome would tower over the Earth while encompassing the Sun and the planets of the solar system.

While this outlandish theory may seem amusing at first glance, the fact remains that it has gone viral. “Giving anyone the ability to say anything with a megaphone like YouTube is bound to have consequences. Unlike those who think the earth is round, Flat Earthers spend their time using social networks to get their message across. As a result, they play into the hands of algorithms and feed the economic model of Silicon Valley companies”, explains Thomas Huchon, journalist and specialist in fake news. As proof, on Facebook, the Flat Earth Society group currently has more than 200,000 members from all over the world.

Another problem: one conspiracy theory often leads to another. “You only ever believe in one conspiracy theory, assures Thomas Huchon. If you believe that the Earth is flat, for example, this means that you will systematically believe in a second underlying conspiracy theory which is that the media manipulate opinion”. As a result, the conspiracy theorists no longer give credit to the official versions and constantly question the facts. A confirmation bias that reinforces their opinion and increases their chances of adhering to other outlandish theories.

And indeed, according to a study by the IFOP for the Jean Jaurès Foundation and Conspiracy Watch, around one in five French people believe in at least five conspiracy theories. Among them, the supposed complicity of the government with the pharmaceutical industry to hide the reality of the harmfulness of vaccines (43%), the white trails of planes which would be toxic and deliberately spread for secret reasons (15%) or the fact that the official version of the Strasbourg attack of December 11, 2018 was the product of manipulation by the authorities (10%).

If conspiracy theories did not wait for the digital age to exist, they were however more contained in the past. For Thomas Huchon, the Internet and social networks have undoubtedly favored the explosion of conspiracy theories and the number of their supporters. However, this does not mean that it is impossible to fight them. “We cannot put an end to conspiracy theories, but we can fight them by equipping the brains, by educating the youngest in the media and in critical thinking”, believes the specialist.

Elon Musk himself tried it in November 2017. On his Twitter account, the leader of Tesla and SpaceX wondered why there was no Mars Plate association. In response, the group Flat Earth Society replied that “unlike the Earth, it is easy to observe that Mars is round”. For Thomas Huchon, this answer is particularly eloquent: “It means that until the flat earth people have seen the surface of the Earth with their own eyes, they will not admit that it is round. And still, maybe will they never believe it”.