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“No Safe Spaces on the Flat Earth” – Emergent Alt-Right Inspired Flat Earth Online Communities

June 7, 2017

By Aric Toler

Translations: Русский

In the spring of 2017, NBA superstar Kyrie Irving and NBA Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal both publicly discussed their belief that the world is flat, although Shaq later clarified that he was joking. These statements brought light to what Live Science called “the ultimate conspiracy theory” — a refutation of the globe, and with it, heliocentrism and even the theory of gravity. This being the internet, it is not shocking to find groups who believe in anything, whether it is that pterodactyls still fly in our skies or that people live at the center of the “hollow earth.” While there are plenty of believers in chemtrails and vaccination conspiracies that rely on faulty science, these other fringe-of-the-fringe theories that refute the most basic scientific understanding of our world garner little to no mainstream traction. However, flat earth ideas have moved incrementally towards the mainstream. After examining these flat earth online communities, it becomes clear that there are common threads and a similar vocabulary shared between them and the alt-right communities that gained prominence in 2016. Here, we will outline what online flat earth communities look like, what they believe, and answer perhaps most commonly asked question about the flat earth theory: do people actually believe this?

Flat Earth Beliefs

The central tenet of the flat earth movement is obvious — the earth is flat, rather than a sphere.

The exact details of how a flat earth works differ among believers, but generally the earth is seen as a flat disc with the sun and moon revolving around it. Most flat earth models have the North Pole at the center of the flat disc and a ring of ice (Antarctica) surrounding it.

Representation of a flat earth with revolving sun and moon

Representation of a flat earth with revolving sun and moon

For a more detailed explanation of flat earth beliefs, see Ashley Feinberg’s concise explainer from 2016 here. However, there are flat earth heretics who believe in a different map, including (as The Guardian detailed in 2016) one prominent flat earth YouTuber who believes that Antarctica is at the center of the flat disc, and not along the rim.

If one were to sincerely adopt the belief of a flat earth, it would require a reshaping of other notions, such as the nature of the universe and elementary laws of physics. Thus, the beliefs surrounding flat earth communities are rarely isolated to just the shape of the planet, and will extend to rejecting the most basic tenets of physics and astronomy, such as Copernican heliocentrism (the earth revolves around the sun, and not the other way around) and the theory of gravity. YouTube channels, Facebook groups, and Imgur albums provide endless examples (and variations) of these alternative laws of physics.

The cognitive dissonance required to believe that the earth is flat leads to a number of absurd subsequent beliefs, including, as best documented by Sam Kriss in The Atlantic, that there are actually no forests on earth. An 80-minute video, embedded below, lays out the details of the idea, which as Kriss describes, goes beyond simple assertions about forests and veers into nonsensical “mythic assonances.”

Online Communities

Flat earth beliefs are nothing new. Through much of the 20th century, the International Flat Earth Society and the Flat Earth News served as the most visible communities for those who believed in or were curious about the alternative world view.

December 1980 edition of the Flat Earth News (source)

There is no need to elaborate on how the internet has accelerated the spread of some conspiracy theories, whether it be ancient (yet, still active) Usenet groups, GIF-heavy Geocities sites, and eventually somewhat through websites like InfoWars. In the latest development, YouTube and social networks have accelerated the spread of flat earth ideas, with tens of thousands of followers on various Facebook pages, Instagram accounts (see this AV Club primer on the topic), and endless YouTube videos with men (and a few women) speaking over a slideshow of shoddily-edited photographs and memes.

These memes have become a new focal point for flat earth believers in their attempts to spread their message and persuade others. Most recently, the flat earth movement has adopted “Fepe,” or “Flat Earth Pepe,” to spread their ideas. This character is a spin-off of the alt-right favorite, Pepe the frog, though Fepe is supposed to be a penguin.

 

A penguin was chosen for Fepe in order to reference that Antarctica is (as they believe) on the edge of the earth, rather than the bottom. Lacking a grasp on gravity and basic physics, many flat earth believers assert that it is impossible to be “upside-down” on Antarctica, and only a flat earth would explain why penguins do not fall off into space while at the “bottom” of the world. In one especially dramatic video, Pepe is transformed into Fepe, showing what is perceived to be a continuation of the alt-right use of Pepe.

Similarly, flat earth believers have recently picked up the #Globexit hashtag, playing off of Brexit, to share their ideas. Taking the cue of far-right internet activists who shared memes in support of Trump, Brexit, and Marine Le Pen, #Globexit is being pushed as an ideological movement.

Offshoot of the Alt-Right?

Flat earth believers’ recent use of alt-right favorite Pepe and #Globexit is not a coincidence, as many of their ideological tenets and goals can be found in the alt-right. This is not to say that the alt-right believes that the earth is flat–in fact, most on the alt-right would likely see flat earth believers’ use of their memes and methods as a detriment to their far-right causes. Rather, modern flat earth online communities should be seen as inspired by the alt-right, as opposed to the previous iterations of flat earth communities, which were rooted in literalist readings of the Bible and fringe Christian evangelical movements.

Flat earth beliefs are not just a break from scientific logic, but more centrally an explicit rejection of mainstream political authority. According to flat earth believers, the round earth is more than a scientific lie; it extends to a grand conspiracy orchestrated by the global order and perpetuated by a range of institutions, both real (NASA) and imaginary (the Illuminati). With this, we see the common threads between flat earth online communities and alt-right ones, with similar messaging strategies and a shared vocabulary of describing their ideological foes. For example, many Trump fans believe that their massive propagation of pro-Trump Pepe memes had a tangible effect on his electoral victory (as seen in the “rare Pepe” tweet below, posted just before the presidential election). Following this success, they tried to replicate their “meme war” to push far-right politician Marine Le Pen to victory in the French presidential election.

The same tactics are being borrowed by flat earth believers, with the spread of Fepe as a means of spreading the “truth” of flat earth. A British man named Joseph Green has taken this notion to its logical end point with his GoFundMe crowd-funding campaign to raise money for a “Flat Earth Meme Factory,” which would “be operational for 50+ hours every week; producing and sharing flat earth content throughout the world wide web.” His pitch is a bit convoluted, to put it mildly, as he explains why the Flat Earth Meme Factory is a good “investment”:

Whether you’re part of the flat earth movement or not, I promise you this is the best place you can invest your money right now. Once my objective is complete, your money will be worthless anyway.

Green’s insistence that “money will be worthless” after flat earth truth spreads across the globe (or the disc) underscores the world-changing stakes for which flat earth believers feel they are fighting. To accept flat earth does not just mean rejecting the globe, but rejecting all political and scientific authority, thus changing your entire worldview. In another recent development in flat earth online communities, the sudden cognitive shift that takes place after discovering flat earth ideas is compared to the red pill. The red pill idea is originally from The Matrix, marking the main character’s decision to see the world in its undisguised form, and has been adopted by a number of alt-right and misogynist online communities to mark the ideological shift that takes place in adopting these fringe viewpoints.

This is far from the only vocabulary borrowed from the alt-right movement, as flat earth believers also echo the frequent alt-right/conservative refrain of disrupting “safe spaces” with their ideas. Their means of disrupting so-called safe spaces mostly involves spamming flat earth memes, but they also go outside and try and spread their ideas in the real world. In the video below, a flat earth believer conducts a stand-up comedy bit at a Manchester comedy club’s amateur comedy night. The narrator explains how this open mic bit shows how there are “no more safe spaces left, no safe spaces on flat earth, YouTube cannot contain this thing, the Internet cannot contain it, the dam has broken, we are everywhere…”

To “red pill” someone is the same as disrupting their safe space, allowing a supposedly world-changing ideology to break down existing political orders. InfoWar’s Paul Joseph Watson was mostly known for his belief in chemtrails and other bizarre conspiracies before the rise of the alt-right, while now he is a YouTube mainstay spreading far-right and misogynist views to (mostly) young men–or, in other words, red-pilling them.

So, this all brings us to our final question: do people actually believe this? In short, yes.

Clearly, there are many people who write about flat earth and create memes about it sarcastically–for many examples of this, check out the Flatearth subreddit or pretty much any 4chan thread on the topic. But there are genuine true believers, from Bible literalists to the emerging alt-right inspired flat earth communities. A recent article in Psychology Today convincingly asserts that many adopt flat-earthism through a cascading series of events leading to a mistrust of science and, more so, political and scientific authority. This, combined with a few snazzy YouTube videos and impressionable minds, can lead to some people genuinely believing the earth is flat. Despite its bizarre resurgence, it is difficult to see ideas about the flat earth having anywhere near a fraction of the pull that alt-right ideas have had, despite the similar tactics and vocabulary. However, the ideas are not going away anytime soon, no matter how often us globeheads–or, in the alt-right inspired variation, “globecucks“–try to convince people otherwise.

And if you still don’t think that people believe in flat earth, just read the comments below.

Aric Toler

Aric Toler has written with Bellingcat since 2015 and currently leads the Eurasia/Eastern Europe team. Along with his research into topics in the former Soviet Union, he organizes and leads Bellingcat's Russian-language workshops for journalists and researchers. He graduated with an MA in Slavic Languages & Literatures from the University of Kansas in 2013, focusing on Russian literature and intellectual history. After graduation, he worked for two years as an intelligence specialist in the private sector. If you have any questions, or have a story idea related to eastern Europe or Eurasia, you can contact him at arictoler@bellingcat.com

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169 Comments

  1. Val

    That’s all ancient Greeks, they invented the herecy about the heliocentric solar system. 🙂

    Reply
    • Mad Dog

      Yeah, and they didn’t wash their togas very often either.
      Who was it, Eratosthenes? Measured shadows at different positions. Flat Earth would give you similar measurements. But I do look forward to an explanation about night and day and why we cannot see the sun during the so-called night portion on a flat earth.

      Reply
  2. Running Tothelight

    Dear Mr. Toler,

    Most alt-right flat-Earthers are likely absurdist Christians. A large number of alt-left satanists are absurdist atheists. They exist to mock each other.

    I do not believe the Earth is flat (it may be *nothing* if it is actually a simulation like some claim). But even if I did, at least it would not affect my eternal salvation. I can be a flat-earther and still accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior – Who really exists. Absurdist atheist satanists, on the other hand, have sworn allegiance to the devil – who also really exists, even though they do not believe he does. Therefore, it is better to be an alt-right flat-Earther than an alt-left absurdist atheist satanist.

    The point? Your argument is absurd.

    Reply
      • Mad Dog

        I am sure this kind of stuff keeps you up at night Aric. Just so you can watch the moon rise and fall, which must be another hoax by the atheist satanists like Galileo. I really wonder how they pulled of that recent eclipse of the sun. Quite amazing (or was it [cue the creepy music] Mind Control?).

        Reply
      • Dennis Markakis

        This article has the intellectual equivalency a 3rd grader writing about how 4th graders are idiots for not believing in Santa Claus. Too bad 4th graders are more intellectually capable than the average Bellingcat.com article written by Aric Holder. Aric, not Eric right? Just wanted to make sure that you are spelling your name correctly, after all you’re writing on 3rd grade level.

        Reply
          • Dennis Markakis

            Anytime buddy. You just keep on living in the world that’s scripted, shown and presented to you without questioning anything at ALL. I’ll keep on having an open mind to discussion without having any use for intolerance or lack of willingness to engage in productive debate. Your 1-2 word responses says it all. You’ve written the article and that’s all you need to do. It speaks for itself and there’s no need discuss it. Why even have a comment section?? Toler*….my mistake

        • Damien

          “Just wanted to make sure that you are spelling your name correctly, after all you’re writing on 3rd grade level.” Its funny because you make fun of him strangely for not being able to spell his own name…. yet ironically, you misspelled it as well. I guess you are one of these 3rd grade level writers?

          Reply
          • Dennis Markakis

            I didn’t misspell it. I got it wrong. I didn’t spell his wrong last name wrong, nor did i spell his right last name wrong. I spelled his wrong last name right. He, however, spelled his right first name wrong. Just trying to right this wrong while writing this wrong right. Right? Write on….

  3. Val

    Who are assigned “flat-earthes” today? Alt-rights, – white, masculine nationalists. Is there an anti-Trumpism here, well promoted by grandpa Soros? Cannot help myself to avoid politics. I try hard, Aric, I try. 🙂

    Reply
  4. Aleks

    ANY “flat earther” can come up to such a forum and put in some slick comment on the whole world bullshitting us etc etc.
    NO “flat earther” can EVER come up with any research, experiment, invention, enterprise, ANYTHING dependent on technology as it relies on those things we LEARNT by experiment and deduction during the past 500 years. NO flat earther can ever build an airplane, lest a car, a ship, a circuit, as virtually all knowledge we have is entangled with each other. Bottom of the line – let anyone talk, such forum gossip is bollocks. What counts for people is solutions to problems, inventions, things that make our world go, and not chitchat. Talk to the hand, guys. Tell us when you come up with something impressive, other than dissecting sentences and videos.

    Reply
    • Damien

      “Search on page for “chemtrail” and do a little real digging before running your mouth on the internets.” Please indicate where in that document it says or even suggests that the government is performing chemtrails…

      All it does is mention chemtrails… once. You do realize that chemtrails being mentioned in a law (not even a law, never passed) is not evidence that chemtrails are actually being used by our government right? Extraterrestrial weapons is listed too….. guess that means the government also uses those?

      Reply
  5. Mad Dog

    Space X has launched two reusable rockets and both came back for a landing, They both launched sats. So, as a flat earther, I wonder where all that stuff went. Is it circling above our heads doing some magic along the way (well, they are tracked above, so how do they suddenly leave the space over NA and appear on the other side of Asia? ) It’s a wonderment!

    Reply
    • Jeff

      Umm ,into space? Where else are they going to go? Oh wait , flat earther’s don’t believe in gravity either. 🙄

      I’m sure Elon Musk, Richard Branson, Jeff Bezozs are all in on the GLOBAL conspiracy. The mother of all conspiracies 😂

      Reply
      • Mad Dog

        Jeff, how right you are. This conspiracy actually started with Galileo in cahoots with the Catholic Church and worked its way down to Robert Goddard and Werner von Braun. I think it has its roots in the writings of the Hospitaliers during lulls in the Crusades, in order to discredit the teachings of the Muslim infidels who had the audacity to pass on Greek academic work. Walt Disney was also in on the conspiracy with his Rocket to the Moon ride in his first Disneyland, convincing millions of youngsters and their parents that the earth is round.

        Reply
      • Damien

        You forget they also dont believe in rockets… Its amazing all of the well established fields that they can simply ignore, theyve been ignorant of it for their whole lives so nothing new.

        Reply
        • Mad Dog

          Really? I didn’t know that. Must be virtual reality made up for bystanders. Wonder what London thought about all those V2’s raining down on them. Blimey, those VR rockets sure do a lot of damage!

          Reply
  6. Mad Dog

    Ya know, Christmas is almost here and with this flat earth Santa mus have a hell of a time when he gets to the Southern (??) reaches. Also, this is the time of the Winter Solstice, but how does that work with a flat earth where it would seem days would always be the same length (though I till can’t figure out how days and nights work in this scenario). Hmm, daytime in Rio would be night time in New York? Daytime in Tokyo would be daytime in London, but not in Cairo. Someone please explain!

    Reply
  7. Mad Dog

    But wait, one of the flat earthers had and epiphany and realized Antarctica cannot possibly be the edge of the earth! Hallelujah! Now if he could he could just use similar reasoning regarding the Arctic, perhaps he can get back on track to a semblance of normalcy!

    Reply
  8. Running Tothelight

    Dear Mad Dog,
    It is difficult to languish in unacknowledged obscurity when you desperately engage someone you admire through excessive sycophantic agreement or flattery. Please note that therealarictoler only engages those who creatively DISAGREE with his absurd arguments. Repeat to yourself: “The Earth is flat. The Earth is flat. The Earth is flat…” Just believe, and one day therealarictoler might shine his light on you too.

    Reply

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