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Tuesday, November 28, 2017

We Can Actually Learn Something from the Flat Earth Society

The Earth is flat. NASA is a tax scheme. All you’ve ever heard of satellites, space travel and (of course) the moon landing – is a fraud.

The Earth is flat. NASA is a tax scheme. All you’ve ever heard of satellites, space travel and (of course) the moon landing – is a fraud.

Let that sink in for a moment.

If the statements above sound crazy to you, it may come as a surprise that some of those who read posts on the internet and watch YouTube videos made by a group called “The Flat Earth Society,” including influential celebrities, actually think some of it – or all of it – makes a lot of sense.

We might ask ourselves: “How is it possible that in #current_year, almost 23 centuries after the Greek astronomer, Eratosthenes, calculated the size of the spherical Earth with a minor error, do people still believe it is flat?” Furthermore, the most amazing thing about this phenomenon is that the number of “believers” in this conspiracy theory is actually rising!

The Secret of Internet Marketing

It is important to note that “The Flat Earth Society” is not a new group. In fact, it has been around since the mid-1950s and until very recently (no more than half a decade ago), it influenced – at most – a few hundred people (an example).

So how on Earth (the round one) do they have over 68,000 followers on their Facebook page, and almost 12,000 followers on Twitter? And why do we have (at least in the United States) a debate about it in the media, which involves some distinguished scientists, explaining things to us which are clear-cut and obvious to most?

My answer to these questions is that people don’t reject the exceptional – it makes them curious about it. A common urban legend in Israel claims that “if you want to make money in Europe or North America, you should open a falafel restaurant.” The reason for this common belief is that people are attracted to the unusual, the innovative, the unique.

Another reason for the partial success of “The Flat Earth Society”, at least when it comes to creating a discussion on a non-issue, is that they use the common man’s lack of faith in the government and traditional systems. In some of their videos they aim the arrow directly at the public education system. It is easier to make people doubt a subject, when you make them believe their basic instincts are right, and that which others are telling them is a lie. If the flat-earthers would have appealed to logic and science, no one would have been convinced in the first place.

But the feature which is most remarkable, in my perspective, that gave me the idea to write this column in the first place – is the power of the internet, which makes small things look huge. A few weeks ago, I found on 9GAG a post with Andy Dwyer (a.k.a “Afraid to Ask” Andy) asking why there is even a discussion about Earth being flat? Here’s the reason:

Vegans, feminists and other minority groups are already using the accessibility of the internet to make them look stronger than they might actually be electorally, and “The Flat Earth Society” is no different. As I was watching a video on YouTube by “The Anthony Cumia Show”, which has more than 1.5 million views so far, there was an option to answer a survey which had only one question: “Do you believe the earth is round?” 89% replied “Yes, it’s round!”, while 11% replied “No, it’s flat!”

Read the results again, please.

Eleven percent, one of every ten people who have access to YouTube and Google, believes the Earth is flat! That is simply IMPOSSIBLE! But here is the trick: flat-earthers are searching these videos, answering surveys online, and making it seem like their numbers are actually much larger, by scale of 100 or 1,000 times greater than their real presence in society (and we have a serious problem if they make up more than 0.01% of Western population).

What Can Libertarians Learn from It?

This long introduction was meant to help you – the activists who promote liberty –  understand nothing is impossible, and your ideas can always be heard and actually attract new people.

  1. Someone calls you “crazy,” when you speak about liberty? Use it to your own advantage. “The Flat Earth Society” may have 80,000 followers on Facebook and Twitter, and their video “Flat Earth in 5 Minutes” on YouTube reaches almost 1,000,000 views (as of May 2017), and the video named “Voted “BEST FLAT EARTH PROOF 2017″” has over 1.2 million views. (“Crazy” also means  “unusual” and our curiosity makes us want to check ourselves if something is indeed – “crazy.”)
  2. We all have a desire to challenge “the system” and to check whether or not what we were told when we were young was in fact – true. When you speak with people about liberty, use their doubts about the existing system, and show them, logically and with the help of past evidence, how liberty would benefit their lives.
  3. Activism matters! If people think you are everywhere on the web, and if they see you everywhere on the street, on campuses, and in political meetings, they’d think you have more influence than your actual power in the voting box. Those of you who read Friedrich Hayek’s Guide to Social Change would know what I’m talking about. Those who did not read it yet – please contact an SFL member who can send you a copy.
  4. Whenever you have doubts about people’s willingness to listen, just remember that even in the 21st century, when people drive to work using their GPS, making conference calls abroad via satellite phone or have access to live footage of Earth from space – they are still willing to accept the insane idea that the planet is as flat as King Arthur’s Round Table.
  5. You never know who reads your posts and remains silently lurking. Here are two examples:
  6. On my sister’s wedding, some of my cousins approached me, and instead of blessing me for my sister’s marriage, they had a single request: “You have to tell us more about this libertarian group you’re always posting about.” I have never spoken to them about politics until then. Yet for a long time, they read what I’ve posted and liked these ideas.
  7. Before the 2013 elections in Israel, when a liberal party ran in parliament for the first time in decades, a friend of mine from technical college, whom I did not speak with for almost 3 years, texted me. He said he wanted to talk to me about the upcoming elections. When we met, he revealed to me that this time not only was he not going to vote for his “traditional” party, but he wanted to actively help us get someone into parliament. Just like in the first example I gave – I did not speak with him about politics at all.

To conclude, you can never know who you are influencing through social media or how this influence manifests. Yes, the struggle for liberty is not easy. We’re all aware of that. But with the right tools, even “The Flat Earth Society” makes a debate arise, and we have a far better starting point and the best ideas.

Reprinted from Students for Liberty. 

  • Isaac Freeman is a 32 years old MA student for German and European Studies at the University of Haifa and a Local coordinator for ESFL in Haifa, Israel.