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.
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.”
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.
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.
— Mad Flatter (@Mad_Flatter) June 4, 2017
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.
— Kyle MacDonald™ (@oneredpaperclip) May 18, 2017
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.
— Baked Alaska™ (@bakedalaska) November 7, 2016
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.
While you are agonising over snipey little tweets to virtue signal to your echo chamber, I am red pilling an entire generation on YouTube. 🤗
— Paul Joseph Watson (@PrisonPlanet) March 27, 2017
— Flat Earth Ancap (@flatearthancap) June 4, 2017
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.