Flat Earth Beliefs on the Downslope?


It’s been a while since I wrote about Flat Earthers and their inane —but laugh-aloud funny — ideas about science, religion, and politics. Their worldview is wrapped up in wacky conspiracies, then layered with a topping of pseudo-biblical claptrap, crypto-mythology, scary demons, and your basic rightwing paranoia about the “deep state.”

Flat Earth cartoonI wrote two pieces about flat-earth nonsense in 2016 (read them here and here), but have not really looked at their loony anti-science movement in any depth since then. After all, there’s only so much nonsense one can stomach. Then I came across this video produced by  Dan Olson who publishes YouTube videos under the name Folding Ideas. I highly recommend setting aside an hour to watch him debunk flat-earthers and deconstruct their worldview in a way I hadn’t really seen before (and watching his other ideas, especially the one that explains and debunks cryptocurrencies and NFTs).

One of the things Olson notes is that the flat-earth craze has been decaying; dropping adherents and believers since 2018 — on the downslope of popularity, as he says around 0:37:02. And at 0:37:33 he says “flat earth has been slowly bleeding support for the last several years.” That seems like good news, doesn’t it?

Were I an optimist, I’d like to believe they had come to their senses (especially the common variety) and woken up to the realization that they had believed in a truckload of diaphanous piffle for years. That they had been misled by foreign agents and subversive actors, all with a vested interest in destabilizing the West. The believers would then invest time and money into books and courses in geography, geology, physics, and astronomy to learn the actual facts about the world and its place in space. And maybe even read some history and politics.

But Olson says no: instead of moving into the light of science, they have slunk into the dark bowels of that cultish cesspool of rightwing disinformation, misinformation, lies, and conspiratorial rightwing codswallop, QAnon (0:37:39). At 0:37:58 Olson describes QAnon as a…

“…fascist, biblical, esoteric apocalypse cult that believes an anonymous government agent known only as Q is leaking sensitive ‘above top secret’ information to ‘patriots,’ revealing that the political and cultural opponents of Donald Trump, the so-called deep state and Hollywood elite are the minions of the “Cabal;” literal Satan-worshipping pedophiles who kidnap, traffic, molest, and terrorize children in order to produce the hormone adrenochome, a byproduct of the body processing adrenaline, which they use to get high during the ritual worship of their lord, who is again, Satan, a constructed enemy so cartoonishly evil that it justifies discarding basically all human rights in order to turn opposition to Trump into a crime in a sweeping authoritarian purge of undesirables and political opponents, called The Storm, which will usher in a golden age of peace and prosperity, or The Great Awakening.”

Whew! Not only is that a convoluted, run-on description that sometimes tries the patience to follow, but it describes a belief system so wingnut crazy that you’d have to be shy more than a few million functioning neurons to believe even a portion of it (of course, being a faithful Fox “news” watcher might qualify…).

You might recognize the variation on the anti-semitic “blood libel” among his description; something that’s been floating around among racists since the Middle Ages, and was included in the fabricated racist publication, Protocols of the Elders of Zion (first published in the already anti-Semitic Russia around 1902 to ignite even more anti-Jewish sentiment there). There’s a powerful racist and anti-Semitic current that runs through QAnon that some flat earthers who believe in the “New World Order” conspiracy or the “Cabal” may find equally attractive  (including militant Talibangelists like Kurt Cofano).

Here’s a transcription from a 2020 Scientific American podcast about flat eathers, including a visit to one of their conventions:

And what surprised me was I was shocked to hear this hugely influential antisemitic hoax document. Uh, the protocols, elders designer, a fake that was created to stir antisemitism. I was shocked to hear that brought up on stage at this convention where I was expecting to hear about the flat earth, but I think I was the only one who was shocked. No one else seemed to bat an eyelid.

QANon seems an appropriate sinkhole for flat earthers: it’s a mix of bizarre, pseudo-religious content, lies, and incoherent twaddle, mashed in with rightwing, paranoid politics; content that is often similar to what flat earthers have posted on YouTube and other sites (the “deep state” and NASA want to hide the earth’s flatness because they are atheists who also worship Satan… you get the idea…).

A YouGov survey from 2018 headlined, “Most flat earthers consider themselves very religious” reported:

Just 66% of millennials firmly believe that the earth is round. Those who believe the Earth is flat vary in the exact theories, but whether they believe in science or religious literature as the basis for their claims, a new YouGov study reveals that 2% of Americans resolutely say the earth is flat…  more than half of Flat earthers (52%) consider themselves “very religious,” compared to just a fifth of all Americans (20%).

I debate the term “religious” in the headline, because this is really pseudo-religious claptrap; no scripture I am aware of defines a flat earth, although some people may extrapolate that from their reading and personal interpretation, likely as confirmation bias for existing beliefs.

Olson returns to flat earthers and why they are in the QAnon miasma around 0:53:22.

Olson’s video was published in September 2020, and a lot has happened since. Not least of all the Jan. 6 attempted overthrow of the US government by the alt-right Q believers who wanted to undo the lawful election of Joe Biden as president and install their Russian-backed loser. More recently we have seen the 2022 alt-right convoy (aka the #flukluxklanconvoy, the #karenconoy, and the #freedumbconvoy) that attempted to overthrow the Canadian government and extort the Canadian public for their pro-pandemic demands (Q is full of anti-virus, anti-vaccination, pseudo-science, and pseudo-medical conspiracies).*

And also recently, QAnon’s two founders have been uncovered, and (no surprises) they’re not deep-cover government employees, but, according to a story in HuffPost, rather one is a programmer and the other a political wannabe:

Now, linguistic detectives have identified South African software developer Paul Furber, who previously appeared to be a first disciple of a QAnon message posted in 2017, as a founder of the movement — along with Ron Watkins, who is now running for Congress in Arizona. According to the word sleuths in the Times piece, Watkins likely took over from Furber in 2018. He operated a website where the Q messages began appearing that year.

The story also noted that “Scientists hope the information will undermine QAnon’s hold on millions of gullible Americans — and free them from Q’s unhinged conspiracies…” Which is being overly optimistic about the intelligence of QAnon, Fox, and other wingnut conspiracy believers. A similar story in The Independent added:

Investigators have long believed that Mr Watkins and Mr Furber were key figures behind QAnon. Reporters from NBC News, Gimlet Media’s Reply All, and HBO’s documentary Q: Into the Storm, have also suggested the pair could be Q, a figure who retains millions of followers despite not posting since December 2020.

Knowing who is behind the curtain, and that they’ve been lying all this time, won’t stop the true believers from calling the exposé “fake.” Because if it doesn’t agree with your conspiracy ideology, then it can’t possibly be true, right? Well, that is the same with the flat earthers. But don’t lose sight of the gang of grifters, con artists, ideologue, and foreign agents behind the people behind the curtain. There’s a lot of money to be made bilking true believers in any cult or conspiracy.

The ability of the controllers and lie spreaders to suck money from their hard-of-thinking believers has encouraged them to inflame the believers with increasingly wild and wacky conspiracies: they ratchet up the nonsense to see who falls for it. And look: more and more of the alt-right come rushing in, eagerly waving their wallets. Olson calls this the “big tent” conspiracy where everything gets thrown in, much like the apt metaphor of a rubbish bin. And look: you can buy T-shirts and hats (like a MAGA hat…) with your pet conspiracy or cult belief printed on it.

Even a cursory read of some of the “Q drops” reveals them as cryptic word salad that is, to anyone not succumbed to the cult, just diaphanous piffle. For example, look at the “Q drop” Olson shares around 0:55:10; a single, convoluted and incoherent mishmash of lines (partial sentences, often without verbs) and questions that include anti-semitism, the Titantic, Nazis, Hitler, the Hindenburg, the Fed, brainwashing, WWII, George Soros, sheep, Snow White, and Jason Bourne. As Olson warns, “don’t try to understand it through the lens of facts; it’s all about loyalty.” Loyalty, that is, to an anonymous actor or actors who pose as inside sources to promote divisive beliefs, dissension, fear, disinformation, and hatred. And to the grifters who prey on the faithful.

Then you find the Q believers in a convoy of truckers headed to a border crossing to extort Canadians to dispose of their elected government, saying they’re doing it for freedom, while waving Confederate and Nazi flags without even a hint of the irony or hypocrisy in doing so.

QAnon has become this massive whirlpool of detritus, dragging all the fringe conspiracies into itself, and homogenizing them into a radicalized state which demands a powerful dictator arise to set things right and eliminate all their enemies. As Olson describes (01:06:34) as, “the unifying theme is a desire for a sort of restorative authoritarianism, for a strong man to come in and forcibly put everything back ‘where it belongs.'” And if you can’t hear the echoes of Nazi Germany, Mao’s China, or Stalin’s USSR in that, then you’re not paying attention. Q’s “solution” is all of them rolled into one. And Donald Trump is their chosen one.

So why would flat earthers be drawn to this toxic codswallop? Because it’s easier to believe in the simplistic solution it offers than in the complex, challenging, often distressing world we live in. Olson says (01:06:44),

“Like flat earth, there is a sympathetic nugget in the anxiety that the world has gotten too complex, that things are spinning out of control… The purpose of cosmologies like Q, like flat earth, is to simplify the world… All the world’s complexity, all the chaos — it’s all the fault of one group… A single, tangible, identifiable group with a written agenda… QAnon, and not just QAnon: many, many people want to believe that things are the way they are because someone deliberately crafted it to be that way., that there is a natural order to the world and we just need to trust the plan.”

Q is, he adds, a form of “magical thinking. like so many things that still have purchase in our world — homeopathy, reiki, feng shui, iridology, reflexology, crystal healing, detoxing, fad diets, guardian angels, demons, ghosts, and Bigfoot. And, yes, flat earth, too.

Olson concludes by saying Q is a reactionary movement that is “immune to evidence” where “reality itself becomes the enemy.” And reality for flat earthers, has always been something to challenge, to overturn, and to defeat. They’ve just entered a bigger arena where they can stand shoulder to shoulder with others valiantly defeating reality and facts, while clamouring for a totalitarian state that supports their beliefs andgoals.

It sure seems like Q is doing the work of foreign agents for them, doesn’t it? When you ask ‘cui bono” — who benefits? — you might want to look overseas at the guy who’s massing troops on Ukraine’s border.


* The alt-right is frequently doing Putin’s work for him, including those among the convoy insurrectionists. From Disinfowatch:

The confusion, fear and anger caused by the COVID pandemic have been exploited by the Kremlin and other foreign actors, to undermine democracies around the world by promoting conspiracy theories and legitimizing anti-vaccination and anti-lockdown movements under the pretext of defending freedom. These movements have been growing around the world, including in Canada, where regular anti-vaccination/lockdown protests have occurred in most major cities. RT has further provoked these movements through a constant stream of propaganda designed to legitimize and amplify them, often with terrifying headlines intended to inspire anger and fear.

The recent protests and occupations that have paralyzed US-Canadian border crossings, the nation’s capital, and other cities have, in part, been fuelled by a sustained information operation targeting vaccines, lockdowns and vaccine mandates undertaken by Russian state propagandists and closely aligned proxy platforms in Canada.  Between late January and early February, RT has posted several stories per day about the trucker occupation protests – in English, French and other languages to further polarize Canadians on this issue.

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