“We are the teachers now,” Joshua Swift declares from the stage. Standing next to a poster board announcing that the EARTH IS FLAT, he addresses the hundred people in the room. “We have to reeducate people,” he tells us, “We have to reeducate what America looks like.”
Swift gained fame in the flat earth community by standing on Minneapolis street corners, putting a camera in people’s faces, and asking for two pieces of proof that the Earth is round. He would then upload his respondent’s hesitations to YouTube for his 3,700 subscribers. For this, he earned an invitation to present here, in November 2018 at the Second Annual Flat Earth Conference in Denver, Colorado.
“He’s hardcore, man,” offers Darryle Marble, another flat earth celebrity. “He’s crashing fieldtrips at courthouses. He’s just getting into people’s face.” In one video, Swift provokes a father with his two young sons at a hockey game, “Lie to your kids some more,” he says as the family walks away, “and Santa Claus isn’t real,” he says, following them through the concession stands, yelling, even after security asks him to stop.
“But,” Marble continues. “It’s time for activism. It’s time to get out there.”
Activism is an unstated theme of this conference. Top stars like Marble have fifty thousand YouTube subscribers. Another presenter, Mark Sergeant, has eighty-four thousand, but even with a modest number of subscribers, their videos can easily earn over a million views. This conference means new followers, so most presentations feature YouTube clips alongside an appeal for those in the audience to share them widely.
As a researcher in education, I wanted to understand how communities like this merge their disdain of experts with a genuine desire to learn and teach. The idea of flat earthers putting on a conference—complete with badges, breakout sessions, and PowerPoints—was too interesting to pass up. I booked two nights on my way from New York to a friend’s wedding in California to watch presentations and talk to as many people as possible. If asked, I’d tell the truth of why I’m here, but I wanted to enter conversations as an eager student rather than an outsider, so I began with a limited version: I’m headed to a wedding, passing through, and I want to learn more.
No one asks for more. They’re too eager to help me “wake up.”
The conference is probably two-thirds male and 95 percent white. A majority of attendees are in their thirties, and Swift fits right in. He is a young-looking thirty-seven in ripped jeans and a sweater with an oversized collar that wraps around his neck, clasped with three large, leather buckles. I imagine him in a Brooklyn juice bar, but as a nervous tourist pretending the part. He’s been at this since 2017, which makes him an elder in a community that only began in 2015.
Swift begins his session, titled, “Flat Earth Activism: The Tradition of Factism,” with his origin story. He was first a TV salesperson before becoming an English teacher and missionary in Thailand. When he returned to Minnesota, he discovered flat earth accidentally, through YouTube, and soon felt compelled to promote the community. After his work as a teacher and salesperson, he says, “activism” was an easy transition. He now spends twenty or more hours a week as a flat earth activist, supplementing it with a part-time job as a dog walker.
On stage, Swift’s confident style fades as he begins to offer an abbreviated history of activism in the United States, which he defines as “when you go against mainstream narratives.” Bullet points on the screen behind him list other activist movements:
- women’s rights and abortion
- black civil rights
- homosexual rights
- war, free speech, gun rights
- flat earth
The audience is filled with as many “Bible says Flat Earth” T-shirts as “NASA lies” ones, so when Swift describes women’s civil rights—which, as he puts it, are important for women “to be protected”—it’s clear that he’s more used to liberal Minneapolis. He’s saying “women’s rights and abortion” like it’s a good thing.
The crowd grumbles and the men in front of me give each other skeptical, angry looks.
Swift swallows his sentence. “Whether you agree with the outcome or not,” he says, “one side got their people out there.”
The crowd hesitantly agrees.
Afraid of stepping on another cultural landmine, he quickly skips to his climax.
“Is flat earth a protected group?”
“No!” the crowd responds.
“No. We’re clearly not a protected group.”
The flat earth community has been on a fast, upward climb. Their first conference in 2017 was such a success that they’re doing it again here, at a hotel conference center in Denver, Colorado with roughly eight hundred people in attendance. A third is planned for Dallas, as is a cruise in 2020.
While there have been those who believe that the Earth is flat throughout human history, we’ve known the Earth is round for at least 2,500 years, when Aristotle first noted that our planet casts a curved shadow on the moon during an eclipse. For even longer, we’ve been watching ships disappear over the horizon, the sun set, and the stars and planets rotate above.
This recent strain of flat earthism began in early 2015 with Mark Sargent’s YouTube series “Flat Earth Clues.” The first episode has over 1.1 million views and declares that in 1958, the United States government discovered that the Earth is not only flat, but covered by a shell-like dome. As Sargent reports, the US and USSR weren’t doing atmospheric tests of their nuclear arsenal during the Cold War, it was “atmospheric bombardment.” They were trying to break through the dome.
Others soon joined Sargent, creating dozens of YouTube “experiments”—lasers shot across lakes to prove flatness, videos filmed with fish-eye-lenses to prove curvature can be faked. YouTube videos are the lifeblood of this community’s quick growth, which thrives on a feedback loop of experiments and explainers. Two percent of Americans believe the Earth is flat and fourteen percent are skeptical or unsure, according to a 2018 YouGov poll, offering a potential audience of tens of millions in the US alone.
One of the most famous “experiments” is Darryle Marble’s time-lapse video of a pocket level sitting on a tray during a cross-country airplane trip with the goal of observing whether or not the plane “compensates” for the curve of the Earth. The bubble on his six-inch level barely moves, therefore the Earth is flat, he concludes, ignoring the fact that such a tiny instrument could never measure a globe so massive it only curves eight inches in a mile.
In another, “Mad” Mike Hughes launches himself 1,875 feet above the Mojave Desert in a homemade rocket, parachuting safely back to Earth having seen the horizon from the same elevation you might reach by taking a mellow hike in flip-flops. “Do I believe the Earth is shaped like a Frisbee? I believe it is,” he told the Associated Press. “Do I know for sure? No. That’s why I want to go up in space.”
Flat earth ideas have been endorsed (and sometimes retracted) by celebrities including NBA stars Shaquille O’Neil and Kyrie Irving, rapper B.o.B., English cricket star Freddie Flintoff, and WWE wrestler A.J. Styles, among others. The community’s own celebrities range from the kind of overweight middle-aged men you might expect, to Marble, a young black man with an infectious smile and a conference presentation that opens by spotlighting flat earthers of color.
They have young stars too, like the fourteen-year-old blond YouTuber with a mouthful of braces and a lapel pin that says, “Stay Woke,” appropriating the social justice phrase to fit the community’s favorite “The Matrix” meme, when Neo chooses the red pill over the blue pill.
Her pin earns her fist bumps and photos throughout the conference. Like Neo, these people believe, they’ve chosen the red pill. They’ve chosen truth over oppression, and it’s their heroic duty to wake everyone else up now too.
According to flat earthers, we’re all deluded. We’ve been tricked to believe we’re on a planet circling our sun within the Milky Way Galaxy, one of billions of galaxies in an expansive and expanding universe. But, they argue, none of that is true. The hundreds of thousands of scientists who have built knowledge over millennia are Illuminati, Nazis, free masons, the devil’s minions, or, they’ve simply been duped into doing the “wrong” experiments.
We are, in fact, living on a flat, domed, petri dish—a “terrarium,” as several presenters describe it, and the truth of our containment is either too beautiful or too horrifying for the general public to know.
There are debates about what this “terrarium” is, exactly. Some flat earthers suggest that this terrarium is the footstool of God, sitting in His study, while others think we’re living in a container built by aliens. In these versions, the north pole is in the center while Antarctica forms an outer wall of ice where the dome and Earth meet. Others think the dome isn’t a dome at all but a digital reality. If you walk off one side you’ll just come out the other, an “infinite plane.”
What most flat earthers do agree on is that stars don’t exist, space doesn’t exist, and NASA is at the heart of these lies. NASA’s budget isn’t for space travel, but for elaborate videos designed to trick us. The most common emblem at the conference is the blue NASA logo where “NASA” has been replaced with “LIES.” It’s this kind of hostility that led a flat earther to hold a camera in a random NASA employee’s face in a coffee shop, call him a liar, and say, “You hate Americans, is that it?” It’s the same atmosphere that caused another conspiracy theorist to follow Buzz Aldrin with a camera, calling him a liar until the 87-year-old punched him in the face.
While most flat earthers believe that NASA is evil, everything else is up for discussion. Many think that the white streaks of condensation behind passenger planes are evidence of “chemtrails,” which the government either uses to poison us into submission or to create the weather in our terrarium. Others suggest that 9/11 was an inside job designed to distract us or start a war, or that the Sandy Hook school shooting didn’t happen. To get sucked into their YouTube loops, or attend this conference, is to hear a lot about the Antarctic Treaty limiting flights near “the wall,” exhaustive mentions of the biblical “firmament,” and pictures of “bubbles in space” that show how NASA’s missions are actually recorded in swimming pools.
There’s some overlap within individual arguments but no consistent message, because flat earthers vehemently argue that everything should be investigated by each individual. They encourage direct experience—“observable” evidence over “abstract knowledge,” as many call it—so they actively disregard expertise, or any historical or scientific evidence accumulated over time. Scientific knowledge that can’t be replicated in a backyard—like the work that brought us antibiotics, dwarf wheat, cancer treatments, and the Internet—demands skepticism.
It’s a DIY atmosphere grown almost entirely on YouTube, collecting conspiracy theorists under a single umbrella, and the nicest thing you’ll hear scientists and educators say is that at least they’re trying to learn a bit about science.
“When I’ve heard some of the takes by the media, it’s been laughable. It’s not been journalism, it’s been hit pieces,” says Rick Hummer, a flat earth radio and YouTube host in his keynote address. “Who can’t see that the ocean is level? Who can’t see that Polaris doesn’t move?”
Hummer spends most of his speech attacking the “mainstream media,” represented by four or five cameras in the back. He points at them as he attacks, pulling from the same playbook our current president uses at rallies. As he seethes about “fake news,” the crowd boos and I begin to worry for the camera crews’ safety.
The press promotes lies, Hummer says, but, “It’s all fake because—”
“—it has to be,” the crowd dutifully responds.
Their coordinated response catches me off-guard. I look at the conference packet for a script but find nothing.
“You broke the programming on your own,” he continues. “Just remember: Water is a natural level. Remember that. Report on that.”
Hummer ends asking, “What words do people tend to say when they hear ‘flat earth?’”
The crowd yells words like “stupid,” “crazy,” and “idiot.”
“Can everyone say these three words? ‘I’m not ashamed.’”
“I’m not ashamed,” they yell, repeating it with him again and again.
There are audible, joyous sighs of relief.
As I got ready for this trip, friends and colleagues suggested questions to ask: Do you fall off the earth if you travel too far east? How do the seasons work? Or tides? Why can we see a sunset? What does the terrarium sit on top of? What’s the moon? What’s gravity?
Flat earthers have answers to these questions that don’t stand up to deep scrutiny, so they rely on a simple idea: They don’t trust the experts, or the government, and it is their job to expose the lies, whatever the cost. It is a desire that might sound familiar in our current political landscape, but it has a longer history.
In the 1960s, Richard Hofstadter introduced what he called the “paranoid style” of American culture. In his studies of anti-intellectualism, Hofstadter suggested that our distrust of experts is rooted in our “passion for equality.” Americans want to believe that all knowledge should be accessible to everyone. If it isn’t, then it’s probably being used for perverse purposes. This aggressive skepticism is fed by American individualism, he argued, which leads us to lionize ordinary people as noble defenders of truth, and to be paranoid about those in power. Describing the rapidly changing post-World War II America, Hofstadter wrote that he “sympathized with those whose way of life was being swept away by the rush of events.”
It’s easy to empathize with this in the abstract, of course, particularly when you look at historic conspiracies that have since been revealed as true. The FBI did try to squash the civil rights movement by collecting dirt on its leaders; the CIA did overthrow governments in Guatemala, Iran, and elsewhere; and the US Public Health Service did fund the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, letting hundreds of black men live with a treatable disease for forty years so they could study them.
Conspiracy theorists simply hope to be on the front end of history-making, recognizing a nefarious situation before anyone else.
“After I got out of the Marines, I was baptized and that was the beginning,” says a thick-bearded man, sitting among a group of us in the hotel bar next to a fake waterfall. “I was blown away by the 9/11 thing. This guy said something about how it was an inside job. He sent me some videos and it just made so much sense. My blood was just boiling.”
“I know,” says another man, also an ex-Marine in his early thirties. “I was angry for years too.”
“People talk about the ‘grand deception,’” the first man continues, “I just wanted to know the truth. I focused on learning about 9/11 first, then it was chemtrails. I saw the planes above and someone said it was crop dusting and I was like, ‘I don’t know, that’s pretty high up for crop dusting,’” he laughs.
“All roads lead to flat earth,” a woman sitting next to him says.
Both marines deleted their social media accounts, stopped watching television, and now focus only on the YouTube channels they trust. One doesn’t have a cell phone, he says, “that’s why a conference like this is so important. I need the face-to-face.” The other man admits he owns one, but only because he started a flat earth website.
A third man, who flew in from Sweden for this, disagrees with the idea of disconnecting. “I want to be a part of society, and to work to make it better from the inside,” he says. Instead, he and his wife keep their devices off and in another room to keep the government from listening in.
They all nod their heads, agreeing that it’s a good idea.
Writing in the journal Science, researchers Jennifer Whitson and Adam Galinsky found that people who lack a sense of control are more likely to perceive conspiracies, develop superstitions, and see images that don’t exist. “When individuals are unable to gain a sense of control objectively, they will try to gain it perceptually.” We seek patterns to simplify the reasons for our lack of control, they write, creating “distortions of objective reality.”
We are also organizing ourselves in new ways. In The Big Sort, Bill Bishop lays out data showing that we are increasingly segregating ourselves by belief and affluence, creating cultural bubbles. We are more mobile, he argues, and we move near people who are like us, collecting ourselves ideologically into like-minded neighborhoods, towns, and states.
Social media platforms, which are advertisement-driven, only amplify this trend with their need to keep people in their seats. In a much-discussed 2018 Op-Ed, researcher Zeynep Tufekci described YouTube as “the great radicalizer.” After watching several Trump rallies on the site, white supremacist videos began auto-playing for Tufekci. Finding this troubling, she made several new accounts to better understand the phenomenon. She found that Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton videos led to anti-Bush 9/11 conspiracy videos, vegetarianism to veganism, jogging to ultramarathons. YouTube “promotes, recommends and disseminates videos in a manner that appears to constantly up the stakes,” Tufekci wrote. “Given its billion or so users, YouTube may be one of the most powerful radicalizing instruments of the twenty-first century.”
I go to presentation after presentation. Darryle Marble promotes his YouTube page and the pages of a dozen other flat earthers of color, beginning with The Vegan Warrior, “The first flat earther who looked like me.” He challenges his audience to develop content that can change school curriculum, saying that he loves seeing kids get involved in flat earth experiments. “We need to continue to wake up the children,” he argues.
Another presenter promotes the “Zetetic Method,” a nineteenth-century alternative to the scientific method that argues that perception is reality. Because we perceive flatness, he argues, we must deduce flatness.
One speaker calls “globalism” an “extreme ideology.” He’s in his mid-twenties, over-confident in a flat-brimmed hat and graphic T-shirt. “I’m proud to say that I don’t believe everything the mainstream media says,” he says. “The only people who feel the earth move are drunk.”
Two others focus on photo manipulation and “bubbles in space,” while another group, dressed in lab coats to mock scientists, repeatedly call astronauts “actornaughts” and tell us it’s their job to “simplify a lot of things that the mainstream has made complicated.” They use Wikipedia to understand things like “Inverse-square law” and “Angular dimension,” they tell us, and then summarize these summaries for their subscribers in a flat earth context. “Astronomy is a pseudoscience,” one says. “It’s all mathematics. It’s a load of nonsense.”
It’s a sunny day so I take frequent breaks outside. I’m enjoying the fresh air when a man steps out, video-chatting with a loved one, showing off the view. “Yep, fake clouds over there. A chemtrail up there.” He’s in a bowling shirt and waxed mustache and is carrying a blow-up globe on a string. “It looks like maybe the Air Force has the day off today,” he says, “not too many chemtrails.”
I take breaks because I need to. The presentations are filled with a toxic mix of anger and frustration alongside the joy of finding people who share those frustrations. It’s overwhelming.
Back inside, on the main stage, Karen Endicott argues that we have become disconnected from what’s real. She is around forty years old and says she’s been a flat earther for three and a half years. She’s well-dressed with an oversized tattoo on her chest and she’s at ease on stage. She’s missing her son’s ninth birthday, she tells us, but he understands that this conference is too important to miss.
She admits that she’s unsure about specific flat earth hypotheses, but she’s positive that government and economic interests conspire to separate us from being our best selves. She encourages us to step away from experts and the economy and find a more personal connection with the natural world.
“Who is the jerk who makes us pay to live in this world?” she asks. “The deer don’t have to pay to live in this world.”
As she argues that our economic system has created a “separation sickness” from nature, I find myself beginning to agree with her. But then she offers her solution: using transcendental meditation to “change your own vibrations” and reconnect with nature. “They wanted us to be separated from our body so we can be controlled,” she says, “controlled by the matrix.”
It is not hard to see why some are drawn to the flat earth community: Capitalism is alienating, conspiracies do exist, and our political system regularly ignores the experiences of millions of Americans. But our society is also built on accumulated knowledge. Human knowledge is social, after all, because we are smarter together than we are alone. But, we need to be able to know what to trust and what to cast aside.
Sitting in my hotel room the first night, I talk to my fiancée, an OB/GYN who has just gotten home from a particularly rough night delivering four babies: two natural births, a complicated, four-hour C-section, and a stat section that was barely performed in time. Exhausted, she waivers between laughter and anger as I tell her about the conference.
“Do me a favor and just tell them to stop wasting their time,” she finally says. “There are people who are working twenty-four-hour shifts using real science to help people, while others are wasting their time talking about bullshit.”
She’d later tell me that she regularly deals with people who ignore medical advice, putting themselves and their babies at risk by valuing rumor over medicine, refusing vaccines, immunizations, and basic healthcare recommendations. To hear about this conference made her infinitely angry. “I deal with the repercussions of this stuff all day long. I see it all the time and it’s maddening that people are actively promoting this way of thinking.”
In 2014, University of Chicago researchers Eric Oliver and Thomas Wood analyzed national polls from 2006 to 2011 and found that 52 percent of Americans “consistently endorse some kind of conspiratorial narrative.” With more than half of us embracing conspiracies, they argue that research in this field has been misplaced, disparaging conspiracy theorists as a small group of deluded cranks, right-wing zealots, or the grossly misinformed. Instead, they argue, it’s a fairly commonplace part of American life. The strongest indicators of conspiratorial belief aren’t ignorance or political leaning, they found, but a belief in the struggle between good and evil. American culture simply leans into that sort of thinking.
“For many Americans, complicated or nuanced explanations for political events are both cognitively taxing and have limited appeal,” they write, so we believe conspiracies because they are “more accessible and convincing.”
In front of the hotel’s fake waterfall, a camera crew has set up. Near them are three young men in matching black sweatshirts that say “Bible says Flat Earth” and matching black hats with Christian crosses. There are several young men dressed like this here and it is an intimidating uniform. One is being interviewed and is describing how seasons work on a flat earth, while a second is taking pictures.
I stand next to the third, off to the side. He gives me a nod and leans over, “We’re just here to make sure my boy gets a fair interview.”
A few moments later, the friend taking pictures comes over to us. He lifts his camera, “Just so they know we know them.”
“We’ve got to police them,” the first guy says. “The media. You never know.”
Every person I met at the conference learned about flat earth conspiracies on YouTube. They’d watched one conspiracy video and then fell down the rabbit hole until they hit flat earth. Researcher Asheley Landrum found the same at the first conference, where 29 of 30 flat earthers surveyed were there because of what they learned on YouTube.
Soon after the conference, an onslaught of bad press caught up with YouTube, including the revelation that when you searched “immunization” during a country-wide Measles epidemic, the top search results were anti-vaccination conspiracy videos. Additional reporting in the New York Times by Kevin Roose exposed that YouTube’s recommendation algorithms were an artificial intelligence system developed in 2015, known as Reinforce, that uses “reinforcement learning” to encourage an addictive relationship.
In response to these criticisms, YouTube announced small alterations to their algorithm in 2019, “reducing recommendations of borderline content and content that could misinform users in harmful ways—such as videos promoting a phony miracle cure for a serious illness, claiming the earth is flat, or making blatantly false claims about historic events like 9/11.” They said they’d add a fact-checking pop-up, and blocked a small handful of the most violence-encouraging creators.
But, with a business model built on keeping people in their seats, and 500 hours of video uploaded every minute, YouTube’s response was largely criticized as a publicity move with minimal impact.
We are increasingly bombarded by information, even as we silo ourselves, making it harder and harder to know what to trust. We’ve been wrong before. In the not-so-distant past, we’ve seen politicians justify wars by exaggerating offenses, scientists justify genocide through eugenics, and doctors sterilize large populations of women without consent.
Even now, we have a president who refuses to accept the reality of climate change, and who castigates any news source that speaks in unflattering ways as fake. With a cabinet filled with people who spent their lives fighting the agencies they now lead—agencies we rely on for clean water, clean air, good schools, and safe working conditions, we’re left with an awkward question: If the EPA chief has access to the data, shouldn’t we be able to have confidence in him?
At the conference, I realized how often people are left wondering: What happens when you aren’t sure who to trust? It’s a difficult conversation, and when the ground is unsteady we seek shelter. We look for community. It’s easy to empathize with this desire. It’s easy to empathize with the desire to stand with a crowd and scream bullshit.
As a researcher, I try to uncover the way information moves, exploring how communities appropriate selective facts and scientific language to undermine findings that don’t fit their ideology. It’s a growing field, unfortunately, as access to self-publishing tools and digital communities flourishes. That access can be democratizing, but it’s also easily corrupted, particularly when those communities are built on economically-driven platforms designed to incentivize entertainment over civics.
As an educator, I fight this by leaning hard into informational literacy—teaching students how to find good information and spot rhetorical tricks, but it’s an uphill climb. We become more skeptical the more we learn about how information is manipulated and how our economic system works against our interests. It can feel easier to throw our hands up and pick the silo that seems most convincing, that is less “cognitively taxing.” It can feel easier to dig our heels in deep. Easier to buy in.
And battling the calloused impulses of our spectacle-driven world is difficult. In 2020, “Mad” Mike Hughes—the limo driver who built steam-powered rockets to prove the Earth was flat (and said gravity didn’t exist)—was asked to be on Discovery’s “Science Channel” show, “Homemade Astronaut.”
On February 22, 2020, with cameras rolling, Mad Mike stepped off of a ladder into his homemade rocket in front of a crowd of 50 fans and journalists. As the rocket took off, it knocked against the ladder causing the parachute to deploy prematurely. The parachute got caught in the thrusters and the rocket make a quick arch into the California desert half a mile away. Mad Mike died on impact.
Back in the auditorium, Swift offers suggestions on how to become a flat earth activist. He shows a video of someone who was inspired by him. He is in his mid-twenties, standing on a corner outside Chicago’s Wrigley Field, trying to talk to people on camera. He approaches a group of men and is shouted down every time he tries to speak, being called just about every name a Cubs fan can think of.
“You’ll get this,” Swift says. “You are openly challenging mainstream narratives. You will have people who are in total denial of reality.”
Swift encourages people to engage in any form of activism, no matter how small. “Believe what you feel,” he says. “We all as flat earthers want to give the proper information to these people so we can wake them up.” Hand out cards to your barista, he suggests, and “go to your local museum. Go on a tour wearing your flat earth T-shirt.”
He tells people to step away from the economy as much as they can through barter, and to develop flat earth home school curriculum. “Pull your kids out of the public schools,” travel to the Bermuda triangle “where all of our rockets go” to see what’s there, and travel to Antarctica to see the ends of the flat earth. Most importantly, he says, “expose fake space, the ISS, and all of the fake stuff.”
He ends by thanking the flat earthers who let him stay on their couch while he was “transitioning from RV living to an apartment,” and the others who paid for his trip through donations. It’s a community that will embrace you, he says, even if others turn away from you, and it is important work.
“How many people here can say that it has changed your entire way of being?” he asks.
Almost every hand goes up.
“Be courageous. Be brave,” he says. “Let flat earth be your passion.”
There is a standing ovation as he offers people his poster board, some free T-shirts, and two rolled banners, in case “you feel really compelled to do street activism.”
I step into the hallway and two men in their mid-twenties walk out behind me. One has the poster board, while the other carries a rolled-up banner. They are smiling ear to ear, practically skipping out of the room.
“These are our people,” one says to the other.
“Our people,” says the other.