Digging deep into flat earth

Could you travel across the world in 80 days?

Artwork by Harriet Cronley

For all its privacy issues and data breaches, the internet is still able to deliver the irresistible allure of anonymity that drew so many in its infancy. Behind the haze of screen names and private forums, users are able to congregate around the esoteric and bizarre, free from the imperious gaze of decriers. Intrigued by the mainstream traction some of these groups have started to gain, and curious as to what extent it represented a legitimate belief, I found myself voyeuristically trawling through a number of major flat earth forums, hoping to gain insight into the logic that has attained notoriety around (er— across) the world.

Despite once representing an archetypically absurd conspiracy, the internet age has afforded flat earther-ism renewed cred. B.o.B famously released its unofficial anthem in 2016, ‘Flatline’, in which he decried the malevolent “cult called science”. Flat earth conventions have popped up across the US and Britain, and Australia would have had its own by now but for the infighting amongst its organisers. A common belief amongst the attendees of these conventions and tens of thousands of online disciples is an aggressive, almost evangelical denunciation of conventional wisdom, an admission that perhaps flat earther-ism isn’t entirely cogent, but that it sure is better than the globe theory.

Flat earther-ism is a fairly diffuse body of theory, at least by the standards of the cult of regular science. Arguments often centre around the “well how do you prove that?!” mode of observation—for instance, my news feed now primarily consists of photos of the horizon with a caption along the lines of, “looks pretty flat to me!!!!”, or photos of bizarre papier-maché models of the earth accompanied by confusing explanations of how said model is inconsistent with the way the sun looks when you stare at it.

In isolation, flat earther-ism isn’t particularly alarming. It’s not hard to imagine that there is a large overlap between flat earther-ism and generic shitposting, even if a remaining percentage is done in earnest. The real cause for concern is the broader trend of anti-intellectual populism flat earther-ism is a part of.

The twenty-first century has fast become the era of obscure, paranoid conspiracy theories. Climate change scepticism reigns as the most high profile of these delusions, and is definitely the most dangerous. Simmering on the fringes of society, gradually inching inwards, is a plethora of similarly contrarian conjecture. Anti-vaxxers have representation in federal parliament, and deep state paranoiacs have become a dime a dozen. In the US, a 4chan conspiratorial entity called ‘QAnon’, which claims to have “high level security clearance”, has convinced legions of regular people that the the mass media is part of a repressive CIA conspiracy.

In some ways, this kind of behaviour is nothing new. Rejection of conventional thinking is a hallmark of democratic society, a reflection of the radical scepticism the perceived equality of citizens instills. You’re no better than me, so why should I believe what you say? That said, the state of paranoia in 2018 has been taken to new heights. British breakfast show This Morning recently featured a guest who claimed that the moon was not solid.

Flat earther-ism and all its parallel theories are symptomatic of a society riddled with debilitating anti-establishment sentiment and distrust of authority. Contrarian conspiracies are concocted with little question given as to why any government or illuminati would bother crafting such meticulous and far-fetched cover-ups. They’re simply a rebellion against an ‘elite’ that is perceived to be arbitrarily repressive and exclusive. Flat earther-ism is relatively innocuous for now, but let’s hope societies can win back the cohesion that affords us reprieve from any more B.o.B singles, or worse.