A new study shows that a huge number — almost 100 percent — of Flat Earthers were convinced of their current beliefs thanks to YouTube.
Researchers at Texas Tech University attended two of the world’s largest Flat Earth gatherings, including one last year in Denver, and interviewed the people there. The results pointed to one commonality, YouTube, according to the Guardian’s report.
Interviews with 30 attendees revealed a pattern in the stories people told about how they came to be convinced that the Earth was not a large round rock spinning through space but a large flat disc doing much the same thing.
Of the 30, all but one said they had not considered the Earth to be flat two years ago but changed their minds after watching videos promoting conspiracy theories on YouTube. “The only person who didn’t say this was there with his daughter and his son-in-law and they had seen it on YouTube and told him about it,” said Asheley Landrum, who led the research at Texas Tech University.
While 30 people may seem like a small sample size, keep in mind these were the largest Flat Earth conferences in the world. That said, those conferences draw their audiences primarily by promoting the events on YouTube. (If you’re not watching those videos, how else would you have known about the events?) It’s like going to an atheist conference and concluding that the internet plays an outsized role in deconverting people. That may be true, but you’re also talking to a lot of people who first connected online, so of course the internet shaped their thinking on the matter. For what it’s worth, firm Flat Earth believers make up less than two percent of the population.
All that being said, the researchers don’t think that YouTube, owned by Google, is biased in favor of Flat Earth theories. Instead, they believe the platform has been used as a tool by the budding anti-science movement, contributing to the rise of the number of actual Flat Earthers. When you watch one Flat Earth video, the algorithm suggests other ones, leading to a feedback loop that convinces viewers they’re on to something.
It wasn’t just one Flat Earth video that exposed them to the others. All kinds of irrational ideas were part of that web.
The interviews revealed that most had been watching videos about other conspiracies, with alternative takes on 9/11, the Sandy Hook school shooting and whether Nasa really went to the moon, when YouTube offered up Flat Earth videos for them to watch next…
Landrum, who presented her results at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington DC, said she did not think YouTube was doing anything overtly wrong, but said that if the site wanted to help it could tweak its algorithm to show more accurate information.
“There’s a lot of helpful information on YouTube but also a lot of misinformation,” Landrum said. “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.”
It’s on YouTube to correct a problem of their own making. They’ve taken some steps toward steering people in the direction of facts, but it obviously hasn’t made a dent among Flat Earth believers. While demonetizing their videos could also help, it raises a troubling question of which beliefs YouTube believes are harmful enough to warrant it — and whether unpopular opinions about religion would also fall under the same umbrella. While Flat Earth beliefs aren’t necessarily harmful in and of themselves, they do foster a conspiratorial mindset that can be devastating.
If YouTube doesn’t do anything about this, it’ll be up to scientists to create their own videos to combat the rabid misinformation… but even then, YouTube would need to promote those videos to the kind of people watching the Flat Earth ones in a way such that those videos are the default option for the people watching the conspiratorial ones. It’s not an easy task, but the alternative could be devastating.
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