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What we can learn from people who take the Flat Earth theory seriously

“Flat Earth enables people to cast out all previous information that they didn’t want to believe and rebuild the world from scratch.”

Across the globe, millions of people believe the Earth — that whirling blue sphere, spinning through space — is, in fact, a flat plane. Believers diverge on the specifics, but tend to understand that we all live beneath a dome that floats through space, or perhaps, hovers above primordial waters.

“Flat Earth enables people to cast out all previous information that they didn’t want to believe, and rebuild the world from scratch,” she told Grid. “Because what it suggests is a literal worldwide conspiracy and that nothing you’ve been told is true — that the world is vastly different from how it’s been presented. For some people, that’s a very alluring prospect.”

Weill spoke to Grid’s misinformation reporter, Anya van Wagtendonk, about the movement’s appeal, its overlap with religious beliefs and the QAnon conspiracy theory, and how we’re all susceptible to conspiratorial thinking. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

I remember hearing one woman speak at a conference and she said that, prior to finding Flat Earth, she felt very unnerved by the scale of the universe and the small position that humans, and herself as an individual, played in the scientific model of the universe that we’ve been presented with. Flat Earth made her feel a lot more secure [and] helped her make sense of her place in the world.

Conspiracy theories have always been useful to extremist movements [because they] work on a very us-versus-them logic. They posit an in-group of people who is among a small, privileged set to know this information, and an out group which is either willfully blind or actively plotting against them. And that structure has been very useful over time to weaponize against marginalized groups that people want to make a scapegoat.

What I found is that it’s helpful to try and understand the emotional reasons someone buys into a conspiracy theory and to try and address what it is, emotionally, that a theory is providing someone. Do they like the sense of community they get in that theory? Is it offering them answers that makes them feel safe and stable? If so, is it possible to replace those feelings and replicate them in a more reality-based model?

There’s a tendency to think of conspiracy theorists as tinfoil hatters, as crazy people. But the processes are really ones that we’re all susceptible to. Everybody does have a conspiratorial streak. It’s something that we turn to when we feel like we don’t have enough information, or we don’t want to believe the information in front of us. And so, I think it’s important … when we try to get people out of conspiracy theories, to go into it with the understanding that this is a normal thought process. Maybe we can bring that empathy to those conversations and use that as a basis for bringing people back to reality.

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