By Samyukta Srinivasan
If you type ‘flat Earth’ into Google, you would be joining a group of people that have helped to triple the number of times this term has been searched over the last couple of years. In fact, a recent poll revealed that only around two-thirds of Americans aged 18 to 24 believe that the earth is round.
Despite the fact that the idea of a flat earth has been scientifically discredited, there seems to be a growing belief in the theory- for which the main reason, as identified by researchers, is Google’s video-sharing website, YouTube.
A series of videos detailing “conspiracy theories”, such as the flat earth theory, have been shared over YouTube by many of its famous personalities, and have managed to convince their viewers that this theory is plausible. The theory has even picked up quite a few high-profile supporters, thereby boosting it’s popularity.
Researchers’ suspicions were raised when they attended the world’s largest gatherings of what are now known as “Flat Earthers”, at the movement’s annual conference in Rayleigh, North Carolina in 2017, and then in Denver, Colorado last year.
Interviews were conducted with 30 attendees, which observed a pattern in the stories they told about how they became convinced that the Earth is not a large round rock, but rather a large, flat disc spinning through space, revealing that most of them were convinced of the flat earth theory after watching videos on YouTube promoting this conspiracy theory.
Ashley Landrum, who led the research at Texas Tech University, said that one of the most popular Flat Earth videos titled “Eric Dubay: 200 proofs Earth is Not a Spinning Ball” appears to be effective in convincing viewers that this theory is credible because it offers arguments that appeal to several mindsets, ranging from biblical literalists and conspiracy theorists to those with a more scientific bent.
Founded by Samuel Shenton in 1956, The Flat Earth Society is sort of a safe place for the people of this community to share their views and ideas freely, and due to the theory’s sudden boost in popularity, the society’s numbers are rapidly growing as more and more people are turning their backs to the idea of a spherical earth. On their webpage (linked above), several newsletters and articles dating back to the 1970s that attempt to further explain the theory and why they believe in it can be found.
Despite steps taken to counteract problematic material, YouTube is still a hotbed for hoaxes and fake news – a problem that has become so prevalent that the site recently announced that it is changing its AI (Artificial Intelligence) in an attempt to improve matters.
AI expert Guillaume Chaslot explained on Twitter earlier this month that conspiracy videos tend to be more promoted than fact-based videos by Youtube’s AI because platforms that use AI often become biased by small groups of very active users. This provides an explanation for why Microsoft’s AI chatbot, named “Tay”, became a racist nightmare in less than 24 hours when it was left in the care of Twitter users.
According to Landrum, YouTube isn’t doing anything wrong, but it can make a greater effort to shield viewers from misinformation. “Their algorithms make it easy to end up going down the rabbit hole, by presenting information to people who are going to be more susceptible to it,” she says.
Landrum called on scientists and other creators to make videos of their own to counteract the slew of conspiracy videos. “We don’t want YouTube to be full of videos saying here are all the reasons the Earth is flat. We need other videos saying here’s why those reasons aren’t real, and here’s a bunch of ways you can research it for yourself,” she said.