By: Rae Trainer
To anyone who spends their time seriously debating strangers on the Internet, Poe’s Law is a well-known adage: “It is utterly impossible to parody a creationist in such a way that someone won’t mistake for the genuine article.” Poe’s Law originated in a Christian internet form in 2005, according to Wired. This proverb has come to apply to any extreme or fundamentalist opinion held on the Internet, including the inexplicably stubborn belief that the earth is flat. Humanity has landed astronauts on the moon and sent probes to other planets in our solar system. Planes fly from Los Angeles to Tokyo and back daily, and according to NASA, the world was thought to be round long before explorers circumnavigated the globe in the 16th century. Several proofs of the earth’s spherical nature exist from as early as the 3rd century BCE, and yet this belief in a flat earth persists in the year 2020. A Google search for “flat earth” yields articles like “Modern Flat Earth Societies” and “Why Do Some People Think the Earth is Flat?” I was able to approach an answer by joining a flat-earth society online. The servers of Flat Earth Official were populated by those who insisted on intellectual opposition to the mainstream: religious fundamentalists, conspiracy theorists, and rebels without a cause.
“It’s dangerous to go alone – take estraven!” The pregenerated welcome-to-server message was default on Discord, a platform originally created for anonymous gaming. Discord is known for its security and lack of connection to your real-world accounts: in other words, no traceability and no consequences. Anyone who looked at my profile would see only my chosen screen name – estraven, a reference to my favorite novel – along with a randomly generated four-number identification tag and a cartoonishly fake profile picture. The purplish-dark interface combined with users’ masked identities to evoke the feeling of a clandestine meeting at night, where anything was possible because no one was watching.
I clicked around the different parts of the server. I had thought this was a fairly large community, and it listed a lot of members, but I only saw four channels for text, denoted with a hashtag: #welcome, #role-assign, #bulletin, and #ice-wall. Three of these channels were locked for me, meaning I couldn’t type. I was about to begin reading the rules listed in #welcome when my computer pinged with a cheery notification.
User The Viking[BlackRaven] had used the @ symbol to direct me a message in the #ice-wall channel: “hey @estraven are u a flattie?” I panicked for a moment. “Flattie” meant flat-earther, I was sure, but was this a flat-earth-only server? Would they ask me to prove it?
“i heard they faked the moon landing,” I typed in response. Not a clear response, but hopefully enough agreement that The Viking would leave me alone.
“ok but do u believe flat earth,” came the reply. They hadn’t bought it. I hovered my cursor over The Viking[BlackRaven]’s username to see that they had been granted several designations within the server, including a blue “Flat Earth,” a green “Agnostic,” gray “Elevated Access” and “Event Staff,” pale yellow “Holy,” navy “Mathemagician,” and the mysterious pink “i like stuff,” which I guessed was an inside joke. I was clearly talking to a veteran flat-earther. My original plan had been to masquerade as one of their own, but I could feel my courage draining away as I stared at the screen.
“dunno,” I typed, fingers crossed I hadn’t said the wrong thing. Thirty seconds passed by. A minute.
“ok,” The Viking[BlackRaven] finally sent, apparently unfazed. “go give urself some roles in the role channel.” I breathed a sigh of relief and clicked over to the channel in question, which read:
"Assign yourself any of the roles above by clicking on the corresponding emoji beneath the message. Keep in mind that the roles regarding earth shape will grant you access to various channels, and you must have one at all times. Please be honest in your selection, the role you choose will not affect your treatment in the server, but lying may result in you being restricted from some channels. -The Flat Earth Official Staff Team."
A sparkly icon was attached to the end, just for fun. I had to give the server staff credit. Regardless of how uninformed their opinions were, they were serious about their beliefs and determined to weed out trolls. I would have no luck pretending to be a flat-earther here, so I selected “Unsure” under the Earth-shape roles, in case I would run into trouble admitting I knew the earth was a globe. I also selected “North America,” “Atheist,” and “Gemini,” because why not? When joining a conspiracy server… well, at least pretend to take it seriously.
Many weeks later, I saw I had been right not to front. Any newbie claiming to be a bona-fide flat earther was dragged into one of the debate channels and grilled by the server’s other members. In mid-May, I had the privilege of witnessing an interrogation like this. Teazy, a longtime senior member, kicked off the quiz: “How does gravity work on the flat earth?” User IkeaGoddess, the flat-earther in question, floundered under the spotlight: “Ummm, it works the same as round earth, except not round,” she wrote.
“Ha! Fail!” trumpeted Lucifers Servant, whose identifying roles included “Sim Earth” and “Satanist.” “It is relative density, noob. It is impossible for a FE as gravity makes it a ball”
“piss off @Lucifers Servant,” responded junior member killerkirby. “dont all flat earthers think differently#”
I was watching my screen, open-mouthed. I wanted to jump in and test IkeaGoddess’s understanding more. In high school physics, we’re taught that gravity compresses matter into spherical shapes, but could this be a subject of contention? “what if gravity just pulls things down on her flat earth,” I asked.
“Gravity makes things spheres,” shot back Lucifers Servant, and I received multiple “lmao” responses (a common abbreviation for “laughing my ass off”) from other members of the server, but IkeaGoddess felt vindicated.
“Exactly,” she wrote, responding to me. “My flat earth ideology says it does.”
The discussion momentarily devolved into a debate over IKEA furniture before returning to its topic. It was Lucifers Servant who cracked the code. “You have the Religious Christian view of a FE [flat earth], right Ikea?”
“Yes,” she replied. “We say that the sun goes up and down not in a circle therefore earth is flat”
“What are you a YEC or OEC? Out of those two I think OEC,” wrote Lucifers Servant.
“whats yec and oec?” I asked, unfamiliar with the abbreviations.
“Young Earth and Old Earth creationist,” someone explained. Of course. I hadn’t even considered that this server was home to more than one flavor of science denial. After referring to Carleton College’s Science Education Resource Center, I found that Young Earth Creationism referred to a traditional Christian belief that the world was created, in six days, between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago. Old Earth Creationism takes “six days” as a metaphor for billions of years while still rejecting scientific theories like evolution and descent from a common ancestor.
“OEC,” came IkeaGoddess’s reply. Apparently, this was a source of relief to the flat-earth server, because it was followed with messages like “Ah,” “Epic,” “Not that braindead,” and “Ikea is big brain.” Once they’d ascertained their new member’s beliefs, the other users were content to move on to their next source of entertainment. “is earth dino or shrek?” someone else suggested as a joke. “shrek is love. shrek is life.” IkeaGoddess’s icon finally turned a dull grey – she had logged off Discord.
The accepted answer, by the way, was that gravity was fake. True flat-earthers believed in a phenomenon known as “relative density,” which was functionally the same as gravity, yet managed to deny all of Einsteinian physics in one fell swoop. The most widely accepted view of the heavens had the Sun moving in lazy circles around the top of the disk, like a ball dangled from a string, swinging closer and farther away with the change of the seasons.
I say “most widely accepted” because not all flat-earthers agreed. A few dedicated creationists, like IkeaGoddess, argued that the Sun and Moon rose and set as described in the Bible, arcing their way across a dome-shaped sky. Some actually refused to model the Earth on philosophical grounds: “to make a model of [the earth] would be arrogantly wrong, don’t you think? unless you can say it’s known,” wrote user Intr*n*cTranscendence in a flat-earth channel.
What counted as “known” was a point of contention between flat and globe earthers. Much of flat-earth ideology relied on dismissing commonly accepted theories as “pseudoscience,” and commonly held beliefs as “government propaganda.” An entire text channel titled #flat-evidence held links to YouTube videos with provocative titles like “Selling Pseudoscience,” “ACTORnauts not ASTROnauts,” “The Gravity Hypothesis,” and a George Carlin video titled “Your Rights are an ILLUSION,” which The Viking[BlackRaven] had posted with an admonition of “For anyone that believes what the govt tells them because ‘they know best.’”
In debate, too, flat-earthers had a problem with accepting common knowledge.
I had the privilege of witnessing flat-earther Intr*s*cTranscendence demonstrate the above for me. “can you prove water can conform and hold to the outside of a rotating object that's also moving through a vacuum scientifically?” they wrote in the #ask-a-globe-earther channel. The server delivered on its promise: globe-earthers came out of the woodwork almost immediately, as if summoned, with videos of water conforming to tennis balls and liquid oxygen holding to spherical magnets.
“Is there any reason it would act differently in a vacuum if the resultant forces remained the same directionally, No,” wrote user Sasha[Globetard] in defense of the videos.
It was no good. “that's great mate and good story. Can you show scientific evidence of this happening in any scale to reflect what is claimed to be happening regarding earth,” responded Intr*s*cTranscendence.
How can you prove that the world’s collected scientific knowledge isn’t pseudoscience, an image isn’t photoshopped, or that the government isn’t lying to its citizens? How can you prove anything beyond a reasonable doubt to a conspiracy theorist, whose mindset consists entirely of unreasonable doubt? When I explained my thoughts, it was like being interrogated by a policeman who had already decided I was guilty, despite the truth of my story. No matter what I said, I wouldn’t make any progress, because their default attitude was malicious disbelief toward any fact that disagreed with their worldview. In my time there, I was not seduced to the flat side by a single YouTube video, nor did I miraculously “convert” anyone to realize that their stubborn viewpoint was wrong. I wasn’t disappointed, however – what had I expected? The power to change people’s opinions with logical argument? No. That power has long since disappeared from the face of the earth.