“It’s very hard to imagine that the revival of Flat Earth theories could have happened without the internet.”
Keith Kahn-Harris – Sociologist and author of “Denial: The Unspeakable Truth” – in an interview on CBC Radio
On November 9, 2017, 400 people got together in Raleigh, North Carolina. They all believe the earth is flat. This November 15th and 16th, they will do it again in Denver, Colorado. If you are so inclined, you could even join other flat earthers for a cruise in 2019. The Flat Earth Society is a real thing. They have their own website. And – of course – they have their own Facebook page (actually, there seems to be a few pages. Apparently, there are Flat Earth Factions.)
Perhaps the most troubling thing is this: it isn’t a joke. These people really believe the earth is flat.
How can this happen in 2018? For the answer, we have to look inwards – and backwards – to discover a troubling fact about ourselves. We’re predisposed to believe stuff that isn’t true. And, as Mr. Kahn-Harris points out, this can become dangerous when we add an obsessively large dose of time spent online, particularly with social media.
It makes sense that there was an evolutionary advantage to a group of people who lived in the same area and dealt with the same environmental challenges to have the same basic understanding about things. These commonly held beliefs allowed group learnings to be passed down to the individual: eating those red berries would make you sick, wandering alone in the savannah was not a good idea, coveting thy neighbor’s wife might get you stabbed in the middle of the night. Our beliefs often saved our ass.
Because of this, it was in our interest to protect our beliefs. They formed part of our “fast” reasoning loop, not requiring our brain to kick in to do any processing. Cognitive scientists refer to this as “fluency”. Our brains have evolved to be lazy. If they don’t have to work, they don’t. And in the adaptive environment we evolved in – for reasons already stated – this cognitive short cut generally worked to our benefit. Ask anyone who has had to surrender a long-held belief. It’s tough to do. Overturning a belief requires a lot of cognitive horsepower. It’s far easier to protect them with a scaffolding of supporting “facts” – no matter how shaky it may be.
Enter the Internet. And the usual suspect? Social media.
As I said last week, the truth is often hard to handle – especially if it runs head long into our beliefs. I don’t want to believe in climate change because the consequences of that truth are mind-numbingly frightening. But I find I’m forced to. I also don’t believe the earth is flat. For me, in both cases, the evidence is undeniable. That’s me, however. There are plenty of people who don’t believe climate change is real and – according to the Facebook Official Flat Earth Discussion group – there are at least 107,372 people that believe the earth is flat. The same evidence is also available to them. Why are we different?
When it comes to our belief structure, we all have different mindsets, plotted on a spectrum of credulity. I’m what you may call a scientific skeptic. I tend not to believe something is true unless I see empirical evidence supporting it. There are others who tend to believe in things at a much lower threshold. And this tendency is often found across multiple domains. The mindset that embraces creationism, for example, has been shown to also embrace conspiracy theories.
In the pre-digital world, our beliefs were a feature, not a bug. When we shared a physical space with others, we also relied on a shared “mind-space” that served us well. Common beliefs created a more cohesive social herd and were typically proven out over time against the reality of our environment. Beneficial beliefs were passed along and would become more popular, while non-beneficial beliefs were culled from the pack. It was the cognitive equivalent of Adam Smith’s “Invisible hand.” We created a belief marketplace.
Beliefs are moderated socially. The more unpopular our own personal beliefs, the more pressure there is to abandon them. There is a tipping point mechanism at work here. Again, in a physically defined social group, those whose mindsets tend to look for objective proof will be the first to abandon a belief that is obviously untrue. From this point forward, social contagion can be more effective factor in helping the new perspective spread through a population than the actual evidence. “What is true?” is not as important as “what does my neighbor believe to be true?”
This is where social media comes in. On Facebook, a community is defined in the mind, not in any particular physical space. Proximity becomes irrelevant. Online, we can always find others that believe in the same things we do. A Flat Earther can find comfort by going on a cruise with hundreds of other Flat Earthers and saying that a 107,372 people can’t be wrong. They can even point to “scientific” evidence proving their case. For example, if the earth wasn’t flat, a jetliner would have to continually point its nose down to keep from flying off into space (granted, this argument conveniently ignores gravity and all types of other physics, but why quibble).
Social media provides a progressive banquet of options for dealing with unpleasant truths. Probably the most benign of these is something I wrote about a few weeks back – slacktivism. At least slacktivisits acknowledge the truth. From there, you can progress to a filtering of facts (only acknowledging the truths you can handle), wilful ignorance (purposely avoiding the truth), denialism (rejecting the truth) and full out fantasizing (manufacturing an alternate set of facts). Examples of all these abound on social media.
In fact, the only thing that seems hard to find on Facebook is the bare, unfiltered, unaltered truth. And that’s probably because we’re not looking for it.