What explains all of these flat Earth believer stories which keep popping up in the media? Bear with me here, because this may be a bit on the “meta” side as the kids like to say these days. I’m not talking about the phenomenon itself, where people supposedly claim that the planet is shaped like a pancake and the government, no doubt in league with Big Globe, is trying to bury the truth for some nefarious reason. The question I was pondering this week is why the media keeps paying so much attention to it. And I’ve got a theory of my own.
First of all, yes… I’ve fallen victim to the trend myself. Almost a year ago I tried digging into some of the high profile athletes and musicians who seemed to have become devout followers of this cult. And not too long ago I even dedicated a small amount of space here to the Flat Earther who was building his own rocket to prove the planet isn’t round. So I’m part of the problem too, I suppose, but I was honestly only doing it for comedic effect on a slow news day.
Not so with some of our major newspapers and cable news outlets, however. They take these people seriously and seek to weave some larger narrative about the impending end to the age of reason. There’s another one of them in the LA Times today, describing the various wackadoos who gather in meet-ups to discuss the shape of the world. If they were only looking at the loons in question, that would be one thing, but we’re seeing a repeated pattern in their theories as to why this is happening. Here’s a sample. (Emphasis added)
A conspiratorial mind-set and a deep current of religious ideology permeate the movement, which preaches that Earth was created by design, not by accident. As evidence of its shape, some reference Bible verses touting “the four corners of the Earth,” “foundations of the Earth” and Earth being God’s “footstool.”
Many of the most popular flat Earth videos come out of Colorado, host of next year’s Flat Earth International Conference along with the Colorado International Flat Earth Film Festival…
David Falk, assistant professor of astronomy at Los Angeles Valley College, thinks that’s a mistake.
“The serious science community feels it’s so basic that they don’t want to waste their time debunking it,” he said. “But this is a scary thing…. The danger isn’t that people don’t believe the Earth is round, it’s the lack of scientific literacy.”
It’s slowly started to dawn on me that this is a favorite subject for many in the mainstream media because it allows them to characterize people who supposedly believe in such things as religious zealots who are suspicious of science. That’s a great backdrop for complaints about people who question global warming or nearly anything else which can be tied to ostensibly conservative movements. (Of course, don’t ask them about the science behind transgender issues.)
So here’s the conclusion I’ve come to. The LA Times cites all the usual figures about how many people are participating in this conspiracy theory, specifically the number of views that YouTube videos accumulate or the number of people googling the question. But does that mean that there are literally millions of people who have bought into this hoax?
I say absolutely not. Any of the “conferences” they reference are almost always sparsely attended by true believers, even if they’re advertised nationally. Many of them probably register more attendees from the media there to cover the event (plus the curious who are likely there to mock them). Same thing with the online videos and articles. Sure, they get a lot of views. But I’m willing to bet that the vast majority of them are people like me who are either investigating the people involved in the conspiracy or just sharing the videos with friends as a joke. Also, there are obviously some people profiting from this conspiracy theory by hosting events, selling books, writing for television shows and who knows what else. If there’s a profit to be made, somebody will be along presently to fill the vacuum.
In reality, the actual number of people who honestly believe this stuff has to be vanishingly small. Do you personally know anyone capable of firing up a laptop who is actually that stupid? The effort it would take for the governments of all the advanced nations of the world to pull off that sort of a coverup is beyond our ability to calculate. The high profile people you see talking about it, such as a couple of basketball players and rappers, are frequently seen laughing when they talk about it. It’s a joke to them, and they probably derive some amusement from seeing the media flip out and talk about them.
So why keep covering it? As I said, it feeds into a larger narrative, where religious people are backward, reject science and all the rest. And meanwhile, most of the people engaging in the actual conspiracy theory are pulling off a conspiracy of their own. They’ve found something that will draw attention to themselves and are faking it for their own purposes. And certain segments of the press are eating it up.