Citizens Of The World's Edge
Popular Science|Fall 2019

Not everyone believes our planet is a sphere. Welcome to flat Earth.

Mara Hvistendahl

The mood of the crowd gathered alongside a highway just outside Denver is euphoric. Around 75 people stand in the brush beneath a roadside billboard with their phones out, filming one another and tossing around a beach ball that looks like a globe.

Several of them are livestreaming the event, part of the kickoff for the Flat Earth International Conference, the largest ever summit of its kind. A drone buzzes overhead, collecting footage. Every few minutes, a passing car slows down to honk, and the crowd erupts into cheers. The billboard reads: “google flat earth clues.”

This stretch of road has few landmarks beyond a Best Buy distribution center, so to direct attendees here, conference organizers gave them the coordinates on Google Earth. People seem unbothered by the apparent contradiction. They owe the rapid spread of their belief that Earth is flat to the technologies of the so-called globular world. Some speak of YouTube, a Google property, with something close to reverence.

A man named Robert Foertsch approaches me. He wears a black T-shirt and carries a large reflective sign, both urging people to “youtube truth.” “Should I warm you up?” he asks. It’s a brisk afternoon, and he helpfully tilts the panel so the sun’s rays hit me. “I used to drink vodka for breakfast and smoke cigarettes in the shower,” the homeschooling dad from South Carolina tells me. First he found Jesus. Then, four years ago, came the conversion he believes was more consequential: He realized he was living on a flat disc.

I have flown to Denver to learn why a growing number of people could believe this, despite thousands of years of science showing that our planet is spherical. In the fourth century B.C., Greek scholar Aristotle observed that Earth always casts a round shadow on the moon during a lunar eclipse. He concluded the planet is round, and for the following two millennia, people mostly accepted that as truth. It took until the 1800s for the notion of a flat Earth to take hold in limited circles— and until the past few years, aided largely by YouTube, for people to reject the globe in large numbers. The movement’s rise tracks with the emergence of more-dangerous conspiracy theories, like the idea that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting is a hoax.

Like almost everyone I meet over the coming three days, Foertsch switched to flat Earth ideology as a result of clicking on a YouTube video. That clip led to another, and before long, he was a believer. Early in his conversion, Foertsch came to Flat Earth Clues, a 14-part series by Mark Sargent, a baby-faced man from South Whidbey Island, Washington, whom those outside the movement might know as the star of the 2018 documentary Behind the Curve. The videos in Flat Earth Clues, which together have amassed more than 2 million views, feature Hollywood movie stills, meme- worthy images, and a calm but unsettling narration. The series hinges on simple questions. Why are most of the photos of the Earth from space composites? Why is it so difficult to find a nonstop flight between two cities in the Southern Hemisphere? Why do the major nations of the world seem content to share control of Antarctica? (Many flat-Earthers hypothesize that the North Pole is at the center of a flat disc, with the continents fanning out around it, and Antarctica forming the disc’s icy circumference.) Sargent’s approach sometimes seems reasonable. He mostly avoids other conspiracy theories. Religion comes up only in episode 10. At the end of each episode, he includes his email address and telephone number, along with the line: “Do your own research. And ask questions.”

When he finished watching Flat Earth Clues, Foertsch called Sargent. It was 3 a.m., but Sargent picked up. YouTubers who become famous for, say, unboxing videos are generally content to keep their work online, but flat-Earthers have parlayed internet followings into a real-world presence, by organizing experiments, meetups, and even dating events. (The Denver conference organizers plan a flat Earth cruise in 2020.) “Hey, Mark,” Foertsch said. “I know that you’re exposing a powerful lie. Thank you for that.”

After the billboard event wraps up, I hitch a ride with some of the group to a Crowne Plaza near the Denver airport. There I find Sargent sitting in the hotel restaurant with other movement stars and a few admiring fans. Sargent is scheduled to present the Flattys video awards at the end of the conference. He wears a black T-shirt and a black cap, like a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. I listen as he chats with an engineer named Bob Knodel, who is on the board of a group called FECORE that runs experiments aimed at proving Earth is a plane, like beaming lasers across large bodies of water in an effort to show a lack of curvature. “We’re literally in a battle for humanity,” Knodel says. “That may sound grandiose, but that’s what it comes down to. And that’s why flat Earth is so heavily ridiculed.”

Sargent and Knodel discuss changes afoot at YouTube, which, along with other internet heavies like Facebook, is under public pressure to curb the impact of fake news. In a July 2018 House Judiciary Committee hearing on social-media responsibility, YouTube director of public policy Juniper Downs cited flat Earth videos when describing the sort of content that requires policing.

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