I love the Internet. Games. Netflix. Twitter. Cat gifs. Memes.
The whole world’s knowledge at your fingertips. Expert opinion, peer reviewed articles, books in the public domain, online encyclopaedias. Never in history has been so much information made available to us in such a reachable fashion.
Why is it then that it seems like we’re going backwards? Are we becoming less informed?
I’m not just talking about the obvious political disasters of the last couple of years. In all-important public debates, from vaccination to climate change, the hordes of the wilfully misinformed seem to be on the rise. Read any discussion on any contentious issue where the scientific consensus is clear, and you will find people willing to peddle blatantly false information, or refuse to look into easily-verifiable data. Overwhelming scientific consensus is ignored in favour of celebrity opinions, and doubt creeps in where there should be certainty.
For a few years now I have been following the most baffling example of a falsity gaining widespread recognition, and this is the belief that the Earth is flat. Yes, you would think that the question was laid to rest by Erathostenes in the 3rd century BC, and that centuries of exploration culminating with the launch into space of countless rockets would have destroyed any remaining doubts. But you would be wrong, in recent years there has been an increase in the number of people who believe in a Flat Earth, so much so that it has been the subject of journalistic interest in Vice and The Guardian. There is little hard data out there as apparently this has not been the subject of opinion polls, but Google Trends shows a marked increase in searches since 2016 (which fits my own anecdotal experience), and social media accounts dedicated to the subject boast tens of thousands of followers.
It seems like the current rise in popularity of Flat Earth theories came about when US rapper B.o.B. tweeted his belief that the Earth was flat, and then basketball player Kyrie Irving declared that the Earth was flat during a February 2017 podcast. The belief had been already gaining followers due to the strong social media and YouTube presence of various Flat Earth memes. And perhaps the culmination of the movement came this week with the launch of the SpaceX rocket carrying a Tesla Roadster and a mannequin into space headed for Mars. While all the talk in mainstream circles was whether this was a waste of resources, or the world’s most spectacular marketing ploy, any visit to a social media chat about the event will be filled with calls of “fake” because you cannot see the stars in the background, and people discussing, seemingly in serious fashion, that the Earth is flat and this does not prove anything because it is obviously a staged video.
What is going on? Are people really starting to believe more in the Flat Earth? Firstly, we cannot discount that there is quite a lot of trolling going on. There are several 4chan threads discussing Flat Earth in the shape of memes, and this is particularly strong in /pol/ which is the board made infamous by its connection to the alt-right. It is evident that there is a strong element of mischief in many of the memes advanced there in support of the Flat Earth. Similarly, Irving admitted at some point that he was trolling. But at some point the troll may have reached a wider audience because if there’s something that 4chan can do well, is memes that quickly disseminate around the Internet. The level of engagement of some YouTube channels and other social media accounts would lead one to believe that there is a combination of trolls and genuine doubters.
There is no doubt that we are witnessing an erosion of trust in scientific knowledge and expertise. Flat Earthers exist in a world where everything is a conspiracy, for whatever reason the Truth is hidden from everyone, and experts are in on it for money/power. Objective reality becomes a matter of opinion to be mediated not by the scientific method, but by vloggers and meme merchants.
It may be easy to dismiss this as just another passing Internet fad, but the Flat Earth conspiracies are just a symptom of a wider malaise. There is a toxic combination of phenomena that make false information more likely to spread. First there is the Dunning-Kruger effect, where incapable people are more likely to overestimate their own ability, which leads people with no education to make statements in areas they know nothing about. We are also seeing evidence that the Internet makes people think that they are smarter than they really are. And then there is quite simply a matter of numbers; it’s possible that the number of people who believe in conspiracies is the same as it was in the past, but those people now have a way to convey their ill-informed opinions through social media. In the words of Umberto Eco, social media has given “legions of idiots the right to speak”.
This translates into politics, “fake news” have always been around, but memes make them easier to share, and as we increasingly get our information from social media we are forgetting the ability to filter-out false data.
What to do? I don’t think that this is something that can be regulated, and I’m extremely sceptical of efforts to make tech giants tackle the issue. Do not believe everything you see online still seems to be the best piece of education we can teach.