There are people who believe that the Earth is not a sphere flattened by the poles, but a disk. That the Earth is flat. It is not illiteracy: they studied the Solar System and its planets in school, but in recent years they have decided that all that "ball" is a gigantic manipulation. Only 66% of young people between 18 and 24 years of age in the US are fully sure that we live on a spherical planet (76% between 25 and 34 years old). It is a global phenomenon, also present in Spain, which is difficult to look at without joking. But by observing the psychological, social and cultural mechanisms that lead them to convince themselves of this gigantic conspiracy, a perfect metaphor is discovered that summarizes the most representative problems of this era. Although it seems medieval, it is very current.
"Conspirative thinking poses a problem for the maintenance of a rational public sphere in which political debates are based on evidence," says Olshansky
Rejection of science and experts, Manichean narratives that explain the complex in times of uncertainty, enthronement of self-opinion above all, contempt for the arguments that contradict it, dissemination of falsehoods thanks to the algorithms of the networks ... It's all there. "It is the most extreme case, the purest", summarizes Josep Lobera, specialist in the sociology of pseudoscientific phenomena. Every weakness or attitude of this group is present in some way in many of the political, social and anti-social movements that have broken into our days.
"It is born of mistrust in expert knowledge and a bad way of understanding skepticism," says Susana Martínez-Conde, director of the Integrated Neuroscience Laboratory at the State University of New York. Studies on terraplanists and other conspiracy theories indicate that they believe they are the ones who are acting with logic and reasoning scientifically. In many cases, they end up trapped in the conspiracy after trying to dismantle it. "It's absurd, I'm going to deny that the Earth is flat," says Mark Sargent, one of the most renowned terraplanists in the documentary that portrays the group perfectly, The Earth is flat (Netflix). And it ended up "sinking, like in a pit of tar." The majority of terraplanistas have not been convinced, they have been convinced to be unable to demonstrate that under their feet there is a ball of 510 million square kilometers.
"Investigate it for yourself!", They encourage each other, according to researcher Asheley Landrum, of Texas Tech University, who presented two weeks ago. the result of their investigations about the terraplanistas in the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The first slide of his lecture is an image of Copernicus, the father of the idea that the Earth orbits around the Sun, recognizing that he was wrong after spending five hours watching terraplanist videos on YouTube. Because according to Landrum and his team, which studies these phenomena in the Alternative Beliefs project, YouTube is the key. All terraplanistas become terraplanistas seeing other terraplanistas on YouTube. And once they are part of that community it is almost impossible to convince them of their error, because very powerful psychological mechanisms are activated, such as motivated thinking: I only accept as valid the data that reaffirm me and the rest are manipulations of the conspirators. As in other movements, if science disdains me, it is that science is bought.
"YouTube seems to be the amalgam of the Flat Earth community," they conclude in their most recent work, in which they point to this video platform as the origin of conspiracy vocations. Landrum's team interviewed about thirty attendees at the first International Earth Flat Conference and all described YouTube as "a reliable source of evidence" and the most popular providers for "unbiased news" against the manipulated media. They had become terraplanistas watching videos on that platform in the previous three years and many interviewees describe being watching pieces about other conspiracies (9/11, for example) and ending up trapped with the history of the Earth flat thanks to YouTube recommendations.
"It is born of distrust in expert knowledge and a bad way of understanding skepticism," says Martínez-Conde
Many specialists have denounced how YouTube's recommendation algorithm ends up becoming a downward spiral towards increasingly extremist, manipulative and toxic contents. And in this case it is not an exception. As the terraplanistas defend, YouTube has become the best breeding ground for "alternative" versions of reality, where crazy and provocative messages are developed apart from "conventional science and scientists". On any subject, from the cure of cancer to feminism, passing through astronomy, it is usual to find the most controversial messages among the first results of the search. Logically, these messages have the right to upload to the network, but the algorithms are promoting them over relevant contents. "An individual user of YouTube, for example, without respect for truth, rigor or coherence, in some cases can reach an audience comparable" to that of the mainstream media, criticizes Alex Olshansky of the Landrum team.
"I only trust what my eyes see," repeat the terraplanistas again and again. Although, as this specialist in perception says, it is quite common for our own senses to be the first to deceive us, as all the optical illusions show. "They take the mathematics and we say: 'Look,' says the terraplanist Sargent in the documentary to explain his success. "You do not need formulas to understand where you live," sums up this man who had gone through all the conspiracies before coming to this video watching online.
"As people who deny climate change, you will not convince them with data, you have to find a way to awaken people's emotions," explains neuroscientist Martínez-Conde. He adds: "Our neural wiring responds to emotions rather than data, which has contributed to populisms and especially to the phenomenon of social networks that favors disinformation to expand dangerously."
A recently published report in The Verge about the moderators Facebook content showed that many of these precarious workers were falling into the conspiracies they had to control. "They told me it's a place where conspiracy videos and the memes they see every day lead them gradually to embrace strange ideas," says journalist Casey Newton. One of the moderators of the center he visited promotes among his peers the idea that the Earth is flat, another questions the Holocaust and another does not believe that 9/11 was a terrorist attack.
This should not be surprising: there are many Studies that show how simple exposure to messages about conspiracies causes people to slow down loss of confidence in institutions, politics or science. With tangible consequences: for example, the belief in conspiracies is linked to racist attitudes or less use of protection against AIDS. All terraplanistas believe in other conspiracies and they arrived at that paranoid worldview through other similar theories. Characteristic is the predisposition to believe in different conspiracy theories at the same time, even contradictory to each other: the same people could believe at the same time that Bin Laden is not really dead or that he was already dead when the US military arrived at his home.
YouTube is the key All terraplanistas are converted by watching videos that in many cases the algorithm has recommended when they saw other conspiracies
For example, many of the terraplanistas are in turn anti-vaccines. Lobera, who studies this group in Spain, admits that this conspiratorial worldview "is one of the decisive factors", although not the most important one. "There are entry doors to the world of pseudoscience and a connection between these beliefs," explains the sociologist.
"To the extent that conspiracy thinking is widespread, it begins to pose a problem for the maintenance of a rational public sphere in which discussions and political debates are based on evidence, rather than trafficking with suspicion that a group manipulates the facts from the shadows to drive a hidden agenda, "says Olshansky in his work. In this sense, terraplanistas, because of their extreme beliefs, are like the reflection of society in the distorting mirrors of the Callejón del Gato. At the point where there are many people who accept your message naturally, this indicates that there is a real deterioration in the conditions under which the public debate takes place.
But these beliefs do not arise from nothing and there are social conditions that influence in a decisive way. For example, it is known that people who feel powerless or disadvantaged are more likely to support them (as marginalized racial minorities), and that they are correlated with pessimism about the future, low satisfaction with life and poor interpersonal trust. "We must understand these movements within the socioeconomic context in which we find ourselves, the social disparities between those who have more privileges and more deficiencies are increasing, and this increases mistrust towards governments and experts," explains Martínez-Conde.
There are social conditions that influence in a decisive way: it is known that people who feel powerless or disadvantaged are more likely to believe in conspiracies
"We live in times of uncertainty and at the neural level uncertainty makes us feel uncomfortable," says the neuroscientist. These cognitive dissonances force to create a proper story of good and bad that explains in a simplistic way the complex phenomena of today. And to place them in the heroic role of fighters for the hidden truth: conspiracy beliefs have always been associated with a certain collective narcissism ("the rest are the sheep"). In addition, people with a tendency to see hidden patterns and meanings in reality have a greater tendency to believe in conspiracies and paranormal phenomena. "They are more given to that kind of causal illusions, like seeing faces in the clouds, but taken to the extreme: seeing faces on a piece of toast and giving real meaning", explained Helena Matute, Deusto researcher, about her work with the paranormal.
From that, we find psychological mechanisms such as the proportionality bias (if something extraordinary has happened, something extraordinary must have caused it) and intentionality: there is a hand behind everything. "This desire for ordered narratives that offer certainty and simplified views of the world can provide comfort and the feeling that life is more manageable," Landrum summarizes in his work. This way they would be able to avoid the ups and downs of life, betting on a plain and simple reality. Like the Earth, according to what they want to believe.