A few months ago something interesting happened. I’m currently on sabbatical, so my days are spent in a combination of reading, researching, writing, and procrastinating by watching YouTube videos. I came across a very interesting video from a user called Vsauce (aka Michael Stevens) on how the Earth moves. I found it well produced and entertaining, and decided to look at other videos from the same person. My attention was drawn to an episode entitled Is Earth Actually Flat? and clicked immediately. I had been aware that there was a growing flat earth community on YouTube, but I imagined it was mostly trolls. Nobody can possibly seriously believe that the Earth is flat in 2018, can they?
I watched the video with interest, and found most of the arguments well made and convincing. Yes, the Earth is not flat, Michael made excellent points on how we know this to be true. But then I made the mistake of looking at the comments.
Never read the comments.
But I did.
I was shocked by the number of apparently serious flat earthers there, most of them making weird and outlandish comments. A few were clearly trolls, but some seemed to be honest believers. The arguments were all very similar, and for the most part relied on either religious argumentation, or “common sense” observations (I can’t feel the ball spinning, water finds its level). A few contained links to other YouTube videos, never a book, a website, or any authoritative source of information. So I clicked on one of them.
This is a warning to you, fellow traveller, do not make the same mistake I have made, for once you click on one of these videos, all hell will break loose, and you will be dragged to the darkest underbelly of ignorance that humanity has ever produced. My YouTube suggestions became flooded with Flat Earth videos with titles like:
“101 proofs that the Earth is Flat!”
“NASA FAIL COMPILATION”
“Flat Earth – clouds clearly BEHIND the sun. Explain this?”
“Absolute Proof We’re Being Lied To About The Shape of The Earth”
I was hooked. So much misinformation. So much content. So much stupidity. So many falsehoods. So many conspiracy theories. What was going on? I looked at a few of the videos shown, and a clear picture of a common “model” started to emerge, these were not just completely random ideas, there was a real movement behind it.
The general idea is that the Earth is flat, the Sun and the Moon are small and local, and revolve around the world around the equator, changing orbit to account for the seasons and change of daylight. Sunsets and sunrises are due to perspective. The Moon does not reflect sunlight, and rather emits “cold light”. The North Pole is at the centre of the disc, and we cannot get to the edges because we are surrounded by a large ice wall that is policed by the governments of the world, and nobody can visit because of some shadowy treaty. No ship sails over the horizon, and all observations of a curvature are fake images by NASA and/or the Illuminati. Australia does not exist; or it does and it is much larger or smaller; or all Australians are paid actors by NASA and Soros; or all of the above, it’s complicated. The sky is a dome and space is fake. NASA is the worst, and their employers should be harrased and confronted in public wherever you may find them. All space launches are fake. All pictures of space are fake. The ISS is a drone (they can’t deny it as everyone can see it with binoculars or a good camera). We never went to the Moon. Gravity doesn’t exist. All airlines are in on the conspiracy, as well as all shipping companies. But there is no working map of the flat earth. There’s no model that explains eclipses. There’s no explanation of why the sky in the southern hemisphere has different stars, or why they revolve around another axis.
Most importantly, there’s no explanation of why this complex, expensive and wide-ranging conspiracy needs to exist in the first place.
After binging on so much disinformation, I started to look closely at the people producing these videos, and I was shocked by the viewing figures. Some channels were wildly popular, often with over 100k subscribers and millions of views. Apparently, YouTube’s algorithm loves the Flat Earth, and it has recommended videos proposing it hundreds of millions of times. Guillaume Chaslot, who helped to create those algorithms, wrote on Twitter:
The YouTube algorithm that I helped build in 2011 still recommends the flat earth theory by the *hundreds of millions*. This investigation by @RawStory shows some of the real-life consequences of this badly designed AI. https://t.co/rAi9sqAYYM
— Guillaume Chaslot (@gchaslot) November 19, 2018
In contrast, the various flat earth debunking channels are not nearly as popular (with a few exceptions). Yes, there is now also another industry, the flat earth debunking, with amazing work being done by the likes of SciManDan, Wolfie6020, Professor Stick, VoysovReason, and the very funny CoolHardLogic. Nobody uses their real name in YouTubeland.
Anyway, what is going on? It seems like the mindless algorithms we have created love disinformation. Reality sucks, and sensationalism and populism sell. So the Flat Earth is just part of a disinformation spectrum that includes fake news, Jordan Peterson, anti-vaxxers, and QAnon. All you need is to like one video and the platform will take that as a sign that you want more, and your suggestions will become filled with more disinformation. As fewer people read authoritative sources, social media and YouTube become the only providers of information, and if the system thinks that you like something, it will keep feeding it to you. Truth and reality are secondary, what matters is that you have a funny video and a handy meme. Nothing matters but views and subscriptions, and popularity becomes a measure of truth. Who needs articles when you can have someone telling you how smart you are for not believing the evil government?
But not all is lost. I have started seeing more “good” content making my way into my recommendations, and I would like to think that people at Google may be listening to our concerns, and could be trying to do something about it. While freedom of speech is important, I would like to think that people care whether new generations are being fed outright lies and conspiracies as truth. When we stop believing in a shared factual reality, then we are in serious trouble.
Time to go and watch again this gorgeous video of the Atacama desert. Don’t forget to like and subscribe.