“Wow! It’s true! Our world is flat!”
“FLAT EARTH CONFRIMED”
“80 percent of what Nasa posts is fake”
“Why doesn’t the earth look flat from there?”
These messages are not an elaborate joke, they are real and they are reproduced from NASA’s Instagram feed comments. Yes, in the year 2018, one of the greatest delusions hitting social media is the baffling growth of belief that the Earth is flat. A cursory look at any sort of space-related discussion nowadays, be it a Space X launch or an ISS livestream, will be replete with people claiming that we live in a flat planet, and that globalists and “globtards” are being deceived by a cabal that includes the mainstream media, NASA, the UN, the scientific community, the airlines, the combined armies of the world, and George Soros (because all conspiracies start and end with Soros).
The flat Earth phenomenon is just the tip of the iceberg. We seem to be regressing in almost all aspects of knowledge and public discourse, from political discourse to climate change, easily-accessible and authoritative information is swept away by a torrent of fake news and falsehoods. Truth, facts, expertise and rationality are no longer in vogue.
We have access to astounding amount of information , yet disinformation is more widely available than ever before. How is this possible? Can the Internet really be making us stupid?
This was not supposed to happen, it is not so long ago that people still believed that the Internet would bring about a new enlightenment where people could easily access information, thus creating more educated citizens. But the opposite is true, the growth in information has also been matched with an unprecedented increase in disinformation, and the interconnected communications system seems perfectly designed to share the most popular (and often wrong) facile explanations instead of the more difficult realities.
The first thing that is happening is that media platforms have been designed to cater to what they think we like, and some controversial topics have a particular “stickiness” that make them prevalent once the algorithm thinks that you are interested. For example, I like watching esports and video game related content. For some reason (*cough*gamergate*cough*), platforms such as YouTube correlate this predilection with men’s rights content, particularly Jordan Peterson videos, but often virulent anti-feminist videos and even alt-right streams started making their way to my stream. Take also the flat Earth, I clicked on one video out of curiosity, and my recommendations immediately became flooded with other flat Earth videos, as well as an unhealthy serving of anti-vaccination videos, with some more alt-right content just to top things off.
In other words, bad content gets clicks.
This is terrible news, because the generation of misinformation has become an economic strategy. I strongly suspect that many of the YouTube channels proposing and sharing flat Earth theories are doing it for the money, and not because they actually believe it. A similar case is to be made with some extreme right outlets, such as the much maligned InfoWars, where the hatred seems to be an elaborate marketing mechanism.
Social media also allows people with fringe views to congregate, so racists, cranks and frauds can come together into communities, expanding their reach.
The end of authority
The Internet has also brought about the erosion of expertise. Michael Gove famously said during the Brexit debate that “Britain has had enough of experts”. This phrase illustrates the state of discourse nowadays in almost all contentious topics. Mainstream media has been quite guilty of encouraging this mentality, where in the interest of balance an expert is paired up with someone with no qualifications whatsoever.
Take that decreasing respect for credentials and expertise, you add the Internet, and you have the current environment. Search engines give us a disproportionate sense of expertise, just because you can google something doesn’t make you and expert, and this is often translated into over-estimating our level of knowledge. There is research that support such findings, search engines do make us overestimate internal intelligence. The more you have access to online information, the more you think you know what you’re talking about.
The Internet makes us more like that annoying person at the pub that thinks they know more than they actually do.
Similarly, social media presence is confused with expertise. YouTube keeps offering me adverts for cryptocurrency trading, in which a kid who looks barely out of puberty tells me that “this is the time to invest in Bitcoin” by showing a graph and talking confidently to the camera. Who is this guy? What are his credentials? Who cares! He has a channel with lots of subscriptions, he must know what he’s talking about! I honestly read recently a pro-Bitcoin person claim that the fact that he has more followers than the International Monetary Fund means that he knows more about finance and banking than they do.
Expertise by blue tick.
The death of the Mainstream media
The greater availability of information has also eroded the role of the traditional media channels as safekeepers of a shared truth. It is evident that mainstream media often has biases and ulterior commercial motives, often hidden, but at least we could trust for a level of impartiality and basic fact-checking in reporting.
But in the era of Brexit and Trump, all pretence that reporting truth is an achievable goal has disappeared. The availability of forums and more interactive media makes traditional outlets seem outdated and antiquated. People tend to trust sources they see in social media, which is why Facebook became weaponised so easily in the last few years. You’re more likely to trust a xenophobe meme shared by your family on WhatsApp than you are to trust a nameless presenter at the BBC.
In some debates, even a mention of any traditional media source will be met with derision and incredulity. In fact, if CNN reports something, the assumption in large number of circles is that the information is outright wrong, and therefore the conspiracy theory has more credit.
It’s a dark time for public discourse, and I do not see any viable solutions in the near future. While legislators around the world are starting to try to tackle fake news and other misinformation online, it is not clear that any of the proposed solutions will alleviate the current situation.
Platforms such as Facebook are starting to claim that they are changing to make it more difficult for false information to be shared, but this seems to be too late.
The problem is that misinformation sells, and until platforms start to try to downgrade their prevalence and virality, we’re stuck with hundreds of Moon landing hoaxes and armies of deluded flat Earthers.