In late 2017, a number of professional athletes, including NFL wide receiver Sammy Watkins and NBA star Kyrie Irving, shook up the sports world by making their support for Flat Earth Theory publicly known. For those out of the loop of popular conspiracy theories, Flat Earth Theory (or just Flat Earth) is exactly what the name implies it to be: a proposition that the Earth is not a three-dimensional sphere as scientific claims have led us to believe, but in fact a flat plane as was thought by the majority of ancient cultures.
Emerging first as a fringe theory in the late 19th century (and later again in the 1950s), Flat Earth has once more gained the attention of the public following the theory’s newfound popularity on the internet. Although it is unknown as to how many authentic Flat Earth believers there are, the increased celebrity attention indicates that the theory has a wide base of support from people of all kinds. Celebrities outside of professional sports have also endorsed the theory, one of the most vocal of which is former reality TV star Tila Tequila.
How Modern Flat Earth Theory Emerged
To give some background, Flat Earth, at least as it has been proposed in the modern world, took off with the formation of the International Flat Earth Research Society (IFERS) in 1956 by Samuel Shenton, an amateur British cosmologist who fervently propelled the theory in the years leading up to the space race. Inspired by Samuel Rowbotham’s 1849 work Zetetic Astronomy (which is one of the oldest-known post-Columbian works to claim the Earth is flat), Shenton spent most of his life dedicated to the proliferation of the International Flat Earth Research Society, later renamed to the more simple Flat Earth Society or FES.
Following Shenton’s death in 1971, a small, yet dedicated, sect of Flat Earth Society members kept the organization alive through the distribution of periodic newsletters related to developments in the Flat Earth Theory. After a few decades of surviving in obscurity, the internet would finally give Flat Earth a platform to spread at a previously unprecedented rate. In 2004, the Flat Earth Society was unofficially relaunched as an online forum, and from there would begin gaining the attention of the rest of the connected world, gradually becoming more and more popular among conspiracy theorists and new-age communities.
At last in 2009, over 50 years after the foundation of the IFERS, the Flat Earth Society was formally reorganized with the opening of a proper informational website, which continues to host the largest collection of Flat Earth-related materials available today. This relaunch would mark the beginning of the contemporary and controversial “Flat Earth movement.”
How the Modern Flat Earth Theory has Spread
In order to get a better and more personalized idea of how the community works, Innovation & Tech Today sat down with Tila Tequila to discuss Flat Earth theory and the people involved with it. Like many others, she first came across the concept of Flat Earth while casually surfing the internet.
“My mind or gut feeling led me to a one-hour documentary on YouTube. At first, I felt incredibly silly myself even reading the title, ‘The earth is flat!’ Just like many people do! But again, my intuition told me to give it a chance and watch it,” she relayed to us.
Seeing as mainstream news outlets have seemingly little interest in giving exposure to the theory of Flat Earth, the spread of the movement is thus left up to the community itself. This community operates mysteriously and with no apparent structure through independently produced documentaries on YouTube, dedicated Facebook pages, Tweets, Reddit posts, etc. Flat Earth’s self-guided format has proved to be surprisingly effective, as many of the aforementioned documentaries have over 500,000 views, and several Facebook pages relating to Flat Earth have over 20,000 likes, the most popular having over 150,000, as this is written.
The reach of Flat Earth has also begun to spread beyond the internet and into the real world in the form of both small, localized Flat Earth think tanks, and the 2017 launch of the Flat Earth International Conference, a convention meant to unite the growing global community of Flat Earthers. Popular networking app Meetup currently has over 30 active Flat Earth groups around the world, ten of them having at least 50 members who actively organize with each other and exchange ideas relating to the theory.
Needless to say, the spread of Flat Earth in the 21st century stands as a monumental testament to the influence of social media. However, social media alone would likely not have been sufficient in giving rise to a theory like Flat Earth had it not been for the cultural circumstances surrounding it.
Alongside the development of the internet, Flat Earth owes much of its success to the growing disdain many individuals now have for mainstream media. Tequila made her views on the subject clear by stating, “I definitely think alternative media is way better than the [mainstream media]. I don’t really think there will be a future left for the main stream [sic] as this world is rapidly changing!”
The recent controversies surrounding “fake news” have led many, such as Tequila, to seek out alternative news sources. Often looking for any opportunity to challenge the mainstream, alternative news organizations (of which the FES may be included) are much more likely to publish information about Flat Earth that may encourage readers to continue investigating the theory.
Flat Earth doesn’t just rebel against media however — the theory also imposes a complete rejection of modern science. Although Flat Earth is unique in how radical its principles are, the greater phenomenon of rebelling against the fundamentals of science has been occurring for generations, particularly in the form of the debate over the effects of climate change. While there is no evidence to link Flat Earth to climate change denial, it may be possible that the skepticism of science brought about by global warming critics allowed for a more extreme form of skepticism such as Flat Earth to emerge.
Connections Between Flat Earth Theory and Religion
As much as the current Flat Earth movement is a product of the internet, it may also have roots in how people of the modern age are beginning to express old religious sentiments. Tequila’s position on Flat Earth helps illustrate this idea in that her views are not only a result of a distrust of mainstream media, but a product of her faith as well. When asked about the connection, Tequila explicitly stated that Flat Earth is taught by the Bible, and that any other claim is unorthodox: “Well, there is so much evidence if you do the correct research, but most importantly it sealed the deal in the Bible! The Bible does in fact describe the flat earth as well as the glass firmament above!”
While there is no official connection between Flat Earth and any particular religious outlook, which the FES notes in the FAQ section of their website, the majority of those regarded as authorities in the Flat Earth community tend to also relate their belief in the theory to their own spiritual persuasions. Samuel Shenton, for instance, believed that scientific astronomy was an insult to God, and interpreted the 3D model of Earth as sacrilegious in that it seemingly directly defied the word of the Bible.
Interestingly enough, Islamic extremist group Boko Haram also advocates for a flat perception of the world, though the group is not known to have any connection to the Flat Earth Society or recent Flat Earth movement. It may perhaps be the case that Flat Earth is a new form of fundamentalism similar to the arguments concerning the accuracy of carbon dating and the theory of evolution that have been posed by religious groups in the recent past.
Will This Theory Fall Flat?
After first making a stand as an objection to science in the heat of the Space Race, Flat Earth has stayed true to its roots in the 21st century as the theory continues to encourage followers to trust its doctrine rather than the scientific notion of a spherical world. Much of the success of the theory seems to relate to how the internet and its far-reaching effects on communication are beginning to shape how we as humans receive and interpret both information and the concept of truth.
This is despite the best efforts of science communicators, including Neil Degrass Tyson, working to popularize scientific inquiry trust in data using the same tools believers in Flat Earth Theory use to spread their message:
A Lunar Eclipse flat-Earther’s have never seen. pic.twitter.com/HuApDwa85n
— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) November 26, 2017
With so much distrust for the news and scientific sources that were once thought of as being the most accurate means of education, it may be natural for a theory such as Flat Earth to arise as the ultimate challenge to the established understanding of human reality. On the other hand, Flat Earth may also be only the latest installment in the age-old debate of theology vs science that has been at the forefront of our culture for decades.
Though the future of Flat Earth is unclear, the community and controversy around the theory still stands as a testament to both the authority of the internet and the emerging attitudes that such advancements in technology have brought about.