The mood of the crowd gathered alongside a highway just outside Denver is euphoric. Around 75 people stand in the brush beneath a roadside billboard with their phones out, filming one another and tossing around a beach ball that looks like a globe. Several of them are livestreaming the event, part of the kickoff for the Flat Earth International Conference, the largest ever summit of its kind. A drone buzzes overhead, collecting footage. Every few minutes, a passing car slows down to honk, and the crowd erupts into cheers. The billboard reads: “GOOGLE FLAT EARTH CLUES.”
This stretch of road has few landmarks beyond a Best Buy distribution center, so to direct attendees here, conference organizers gave them the coordinates on Google Earth. People seem unbothered by the apparent contradiction. They owe the rapid spread of their belief that Earth is flat to the technologies of the so-called globular world. Some speak of YouTube, a Google property, with something close to reverence.
A man named Robert Foertsch approaches me. He wears a black T-shirt and carries a large reflective sign, both urging people to “YOUTUBE TRUTH.” “Should I warm you up?” he asks. It’s a brisk afternoon, and he helpfully tilts the panel so the sun’s rays hit me. “I used to drink vodka for breakfast and smoke cigarettes in the shower,” the homeschooling dad from South Carolina tells me. First he found Jesus. Then, four years ago, came the conversion he believes was more consequential: He realized he was living on a flat disc.
I have flown to Denver to learn why a growing number of people could believe this, despite thousands of years of science showing that our planet is spherical. In the fourth century B.C., Greek scholar Aristotle observed that Earth always casts a round shadow on the moon during a lunar eclipse. He concluded the planet is round, and for the following two millennia, people mostly accepted that as truth. It took until the 1800s for the notion of a flat Earth to take hold in limited circles—and until the past few years, aided largely by YouTube, for people to reject the globe in large numbers. The movement’s rise tracks with the emergence of more-dangerous conspiracy theories, like the idea that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting is a hoax.
Like almost everyone I meet over the coming three days, Foertsch switched to flat Earth ideology as a result of clicking on a YouTube video. That clip led to another, and before long, he was a believer. Early in his conversion, Foertsch came to Flat Earth Clues, a 14-part series by Mark Sargent, a baby-faced man from South Whidbey Island, Washington, whom those outside the movement might know as the star of the 2018 documentary Behind the Curve. The videos in Flat Earth Clues, which together have amassed more than 2 million views, feature Hollywood movie stills, meme-worthy images, and a calm but unsettling narration. The series hinges on simple questions. Why are most of the photos of the Earth from space composites? Why is it so difficult to find a nonstop flight between two cities in the Southern Hemisphere? Why do the major nations of the world seem content to share control of Antarctica? (Many flat-Earthers hypothesize that the North Pole is at the center of a flat disc, with the continents fanning out around it, and Antarctica forming the disc’s icy circumference.) Sargent’s approach sometimes seems reasonable. He mostly avoids other conspiracy theories. Religion comes up only in episode 10. At the end of each episode, he includes his email address and telephone number, along with the line: “Do your own research. And ask questions.”
When he finished watching Flat Earth Clues, Foertsch called Sargent. It was 3 a.m., but Sargent picked up. YouTubers who become famous for, say, unboxing videos are generally content to keep their work online, but flat-Earthers have parlayed internet followings into a real-world presence, by organizing experiments, meetups, and even dating events. (The Denver conference organizers plan a flat Earth cruise in 2020.) “Hey, Mark,” Foertsch said. “I know that you’re exposing a powerful lie. Thank you for that.”
After the billboard event wraps up, I hitch a ride with some of the group to a Crowne Plaza near the Denver airport. There I find Sargent sitting in the hotel restaurant with other movement stars and a few admiring fans. Sargent is scheduled to present the Flattys video awards at the end of the conference. He wears a black T-shirt and a black cap, like a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. I listen as he chats with an engineer named Bob Knodel, who is on the board of a group called FECORE that runs experiments aimed at proving Earth is a plane, like beaming lasers across large bodies of water in an effort to show a lack of curvature. “We’re literally in a battle for humanity,” Knodel says. “That may sound grandiose, but that’s what it comes down to. And that’s why flat Earth is so heavily ridiculed.”
Sargent and Knodel discuss changes afoot at YouTube, which, along with other internet heavies like Facebook, is under public pressure to curb the impact of fake news. In a July 2018 House Judiciary Committee hearing on social-media responsibility, YouTube director of public policy Juniper Downs cited flat Earth videos when describing the sort of content that requires policing.
Knodel sees this as evidence of official suppression, but Sargent thinks it’s just a minor setback. He says of YouTube and Google: “They’re in a tough spot because they’re making money on flat Earth.” The more time someone spends on the platform, the more ads they view—and former Google employees say that when people look into flat Earth videos, they tend to watch many of them. A cursory introductory clip asserting that the planet is a stationary disc, with the sun and the moon circling above it, sparks a lot of questions. What about the seasons? What about solar eclipses? For many people, these are answered by more flat Earth videos. Even haters tend to help the cause; they film reaction footage or get into drawn-out comment fights that drive traffic.
Celebrities have an effect too. Rapper B.o.B., social-media personality Tila Tequila, and NBA player Kyrie Irving have all questioned whether the Earth is round. But none has gone so far as to appear at an event with everyday flat-Earthers. This year, organizer Robbie Davidson has hinted that an A-list star will show up, and conference attendees have been speculating for days. Some suspect it will be Will Smith. Sargent hopes that the secret guest, whoever it is, will give the movement a boost.
The next day, Knodel shows up in the Crowne Plaza’s conference room wearing a lab coat. The roughly 650 attendees who join him, armed with selfie sticks and tripods, look a lot like America. There are senior citizens, families toting young kids, and people of all colors. The media sometimes portrays the flat Earth movement as a white male pursuit, but in fact, it has the same problem that plagues the scientific establishment, along with the rest of the country: Its leaders are mainly white men.
The organizers stream most of the conference to YouTube. Presentations encompass topics like how to bring up their beliefs with friends and family, and how to spread the word for maximum impact. (One suggestion for guerrilla activism: Cue up tiny speakers to spew flat Earth arguments, then hide them in elevators.) At worst, the tone of the sessions is reductionist and confrontational. People crack jokes about “flat-smacking” and “flat-rolling” believers in the globe—that is, shutting them up by reciting evidence that supposedly supports a plane model.
Looked at one way, flat Earthism is the ultimate conspiracy theory, a rejection of the very ground we walk on. But looked at another, it is an expression of empiricism, a reluctance to accept as truth anything that cannot be seen with our own eyes.
For every die-hard extremist, there are people who had set out earnestly to answer the question: Why isn’t the Earth that we look at round? In its better moments, the event is like a mirror image of an establishment scientific conference. There is a session on the moon, another on the scientific method, and a panel dealing with gender representation in the movement.
That afternoon, I wander into a presentation by Stephen Knox and Paul Lindberg, known to the community as Knoxy and Paul on the Plane. They focus on gravity, which is commonly cited as proof Earth is round. Newton’s law of universal gravitation holds that objects with less mass are pulled toward the center of objects with more mass. On a round planet, humans fall downward toward the center of the sphere, no matter where they are on the surface. If the Earth were a plane, we’d probably be pulled toward the center of the disc; Australians could find themselves at the North Pole. But Knox asks, what if gravity doesn’t exist?
Knox is a video-game developer and animator based in Philadelphia. Back in 2014, he was working on an animation for a science-fiction novel he’d written called Plastic Life, in which characters live in a massive petri-dish-type enclosure. In order to visualize how the sun and moon would rise and set in that world, he looked up how people had envisioned Earth when they believed it was a level plane. He thought the search would be a historical exercise, until he stumbled upon Sargent’s Flat Earth Clues on YouTube. Intrigued, he joined a flat Earth Facebook group. Nonbelievers regularly trolled the discussion, and Knox, who had a talent for math and physics, soon found himself debating them. Lindberg, another member, spotted Knox’s ability and invited him onto his show, which broadcasts on the online radio station Truth Frequency Radio.
Then one day while helping some physics students make a short film, Knox shot a helium balloon rising. When he viewed the footage, he accidentally watched it upside down, so the balloon looked like it was falling. He started to wonder if gravity was in fact buoyancy working in reverse. He theorized that the force that separates an object from the air and fluid around it—what he terms discidial force—determines if objects rise or fall, along with the difference in density between the object and the surrounding fluid or air. He wrote a paper on the topic and emailed it to an astrophysicist at the European Space Agency, asking for input. The scientist replied, but eventually stopped responding. “It’s been very hard to get this peer-reviewed,” he tells the room. “Once you talk about gravity not existing, scientists will not talk to you.”
Knox isn’t convinced that the Earth is definitely flat. The conference marks the first time he has met anyone in the movement in person—including Lindberg, his collaborator. But he does now believe, after considering Lindberg’s and others’ experiments measuring curvature, that the planet isn’t the shape and size we’ve been told. Knox is genuinely curious and skeptical, qualities the movement embraces. He tells me that scientists are doing a poor job of explaining their work to the public, by citing equations and experiments the average person can’t reproduce. “Everything that proves the Earth is round is something we cannot prove for ourselves,” he says. “If you can’t trust the source of all your information, you have to go back and get the information for yourself.”
After Knox’s presentation, I find him at the hotel bar in a heated discussion with a group of young scientists and students who bought tickets to the convention on a whim. They thought it might be fun to observe flat-Earthers. If they got bored, they figured, they could go skiing.
One of the men, Ian Wessen, has an undergraduate degree in physics. He is locked in a debate with Knox about his theory of discidial force. Wessen suggests that they do an experiment: Submerge a cork in a bucket of water and hold it to the bottom, then release the cork while dropping the bucket. They place bets on what will happen to the cork before the bucket hits the ground. “I say the cork will not go anywhere,” Wessen says.
“The cork would probably rise a little bit,” Knox counters. I expect someone to get up and ask the bartender for the needed supplies, but no one seems to want to leave the debate. Knox and Wessen talk about buoyancy and gravity for nearly an hour.
Physics instructors sometimes teach the experiment Wessen described, and he is right about the outcome. Buoyant force—what makes a cork float—disappears when a container of fluid is in free-fall, meaning the cork will stay submerged until the container hits the ground, then pop up to the surface. But when I later search “cork in a bucket gravity” on YouTube, I find instructional videos for building a gravity bong—a device whose invention required some knowledge of physics but is not generally known to make people smarter.
After the convention, I meet up with Jan Willem van Prooijen, an experimental psychologist based at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, who has studied conspiracy theories since 2009. Back then, he says, some of his colleagues were dismissive, but as social scientists realized that such theories can have a real impact on civic life, their sentiment began to shift. “It influences whether or not people get their children vaccinated,” van Prooijen tells me. “It influences whether or not people support policy to reduce global warming. It influences who people vote for.”
Scholars like him are now trying to dispel the notion that conspiracy theorists are firmly on the fringe of society. “These are normal people who have normal everyday lives,” van Prooijen says. “This isn’t just a few lunatics who are in the basement of their house being lonely.” He notes that some go to YouTube to satisfy real inquisitiveness. Flat-Earthers “may be a bit too open-minded” when it comes to accepting evidence, but in other ways, “they’re much like scientists in their curiosity about the world and in their desire to figure out how things work.”
Whether people convert may hinge on what they find when they go in search of answers. YouTube’s efforts to prioritize videos that promote accepted truths have not solved the crux of the problem: Most content about the globe is simply not as compelling as the alternative. And for would-be converts the movement calls “flat-curious,” science communicators can come across as obnoxious. Among the videos that pop up in a search on the platform for “is the Earth flat” is one by the website Big Think, in which a viewer asks NASA astronomer Michelle Thaller to list some of the easiest ways to prove that the Earth is round. “Apparently this is something we’re debating,” she blurts. “I have no idea why.”
“That dismissiveness can undo the goal of those videos,” says Asheley Landrum, a science communications researcher at Texas Tech University who studies the flat Earth movement. “It’s not enough to just share facts. You have to do so in a way that is not going to create more of these boomerang effects, where people are going to reject your information.”
Ultimately, combating the spread of flat-Earthism might come down to tech-company accountability. Alex Olshansky, a doctoral student and colleague of Landrum, attended the Denver convention and did qualitative interviews with its participants. All but two of his 30 subjects cited YouTube as the source of their conversion. (The outliers were first brought on board by followers but turned to the platform for additional info.) In many cases, the people he interviewed didn’t actively seek out videos disputing the shape of the planet. Instead, YouTube recommended the clips after they had watched other conspiracy-driven videos. “YouTube’s algorithm is spreading information to people who are most susceptible to accepting it,” Landrum says.
Former Google developer Guillaume Chaslot alleged on Twitter in fall 2018 that the company’s algorithm promotes flat Earth videos “by the hundreds of millions” for the very reason Mark Sargent proposes: “Because it yields large amounts of watch time, and watch time yields ads.” The company did not give figures on how much money it makes on such clips, but YouTube says it changed the algorithm in January so that it recommends such content less often. A Google spokesperson claimed that in the five months that followed, clicks on flat Earth videos dropped by 67 percent.
When I relay that figure to Sargent, he says that newer channels now have trouble attracting subscribers, but more-established flat-Earthers continue to see significant views. “YouTube did nothing but help us for three years, and we were being recommended way more than we should have.” As the feeds gained a following, they attracted media coverage, and the people who see that often then search for content directly, making platform recommendations less critical for success. Now that the movement has momentum, Sargent says, “we don’t need YouTube as much. They are taking their foot off the gas, not hitting the brakes.”
On the last day of the conference, organizer Robbie Davidson takes the stage in the Crowne Plaza conference room to reveal the secret celebrity guest: 24-year-old internet influencer Logan Paul, who rose to stardom by posting six-second prank clips on the social-media platform Vine. Since Vine shut down in 2016, he has favored YouTube, and by his conference debut, he has 23.6 million subscribers, many of them teens and tweens. As Paul hops onto the stage wearing a T-shirt advertising his brand Maverick, his film crew trails him. He looks out at the crowd and smiles beneath a flop of blond hair. “I’m not ashamed to say: My name is Logan Paul, and I think I’m coming out of the flat Earth closet!”
By then, Sargent is on a plane back to Seattle. He bought a ticket home after hearing that Paul was the featured celebrity. “I detest this man and will not be seen with him in the same room,” he explains to me in an email. In early 2018, Paul sparked outcry when he traveled to a so-called suicide forest in Japan and filmed a victim for his video blog. Sargent says he has had friends who committed suicide, and he abhors exploiting people’s trauma for clicks. Also, he thinks there is a solid chance that Paul is trolling the conference, and Sargent doesn’t want to appear on film when that happens.
In March, Paul released a scripted film called Flat Earth: To the Edge and Back. In it, Paul—who plays himself—travels to the Denver conference with his roommate. Over the course of the film, he becomes infatuated with a flat-Earther, argues with a friend who happens to be a dwarf, and runs through the city naked. In a behind-the-scenes video, Paul claims the project demonstrates his opposition to the conspiracy theory. But the film does not question the role YouTube played in birthing flat Earthism—or question much of anything, for that matter. The romantic subplot even gives the impression that a convention might be a good place to fall in love.
Sargent’s instinct about Paul turned out to be right, but it is hard to know who is the clear winner—except for Paul’s brand, and YouTube itself. As of this past July, Flat Earth has garnered 5.7 million hits. That’s far more than any actual flat Earth video, but also more than any educational offerings explaining that the planet is round, making it the most popular video about the shape of the Earth, period. In the end, clickbait wins out.
This story originally published in the Out There issue of Popular Science.