The Flat Earth phenomenon and what it reveals about YouTube

My notes on Paolillo, J. C. (2018). The Flat Earth phenomenon on YouTube. First Monday, 23(12).

Even if the resurgent belief in a flat earth remains a marginal phenomenon, it is fascinating for what it reveals about YouTube. In this paper John C. Paolillo documents the emergence of this YouTube community and the issues which preoccupy them. This involved producing a database of flat earth videos:

To identify Flat Earth videos, channel and video metadata was collected in a manner similar to prior studies (Cheng, et al., 2008; Paolillo, 2008). Firefox together with the GreaseMonkey add-in was used to run a user script collecting video and channel IDs from the YouTube public developer API. The script communicated with a PHP/PostgreSQL backend to store the IDs. For each channel three standard “playlists” were retrieved: uploads (videos belonging to the channel), likes and favorites (videos marked as such by the channel owner) [9]. Standard recursive crawling was applied: liked and favorited videos were used to identify new channels, whose playlists were retrieved, etc. [10] Crawling was done in multiple passes from July 2015 to January 2017, each time feeding in additional channels discovered via searching and browsing YouTube.

Two features I find particularly interesting are their hostility towards celebrity entrepreneurs and scientists, as well as public or private institutions like NASA or SpaceX who conduct publicity campaigns and the features they share with wider conspiracy culture, such as the invocation of popular culture dystopias and the notion of ‘red pilling’. These express themselves in a fixation on the epistemic status of their own claims and those of their opponents:

Flat Earth videos have an overwhelming preoccupation with epistemic status: lies, truth, proof, debunking, hoaxes, fakes, revelations, evidence, shilling, etc. all figure heavily in Flat Earth videos. Such an emphasis on knowledge requires that they present a basis from which to cast doubt on a round Earth (the “Globe Model”). The challenge is significant. Flat Earth belief only awkwardly reconciles with modern technologies like rockets (33), communication satellites, the Global Positioning System, the ISS (24), and interplanetary probes.

A whole range of strategies are deployed in the face of these challenges: “citation of religious or secular historical texts, reproduction of video evidence, experimentation and observation, mathematical analysis, speculation, bald contradiction, and ad hominem argument”. These are used to undermine established scientific authorities with the “Flat Earth Model” offered as a viable solution to what is presented as a debunked “Globe Model” (though as Paolillo points out, ‘model’ here is used in a diffuse and non-scientific sense). The material published by agencies like NASA and SpaceX is seized upon in the interest of correcting their claimed distortions. But these are supplemented by counter-experiments, driven by a radical empiricism, in which “viewers are told to not trust anything beyond their direct experience”. The failure of amateur experiments intended to establish the curvature of the earth are taken as proof of the flat-earth phenomenon. These are supplemented by appeals to authorities like engineers, military officers and airline pilots, used strategically to undermine other members of these groups who support the “Globe Model”.

Would we have seen the resurgence of flat earth belief without youtube? Their videos use genres such as vlogs, screencasts, interviews and documentaries, suggesting a deep engagement with the affordances of the platform. These are often accompanied by effective clickbait, competition between video producers, established memes such as ‘red pilling’ and invocation of fictional dystopias which all suggest a community well adapted to the attention ecology of the platform. Paolillo identifies this competition between flat-earthers for attention early on in the paper but doesn’t really develop the point. I wonder if the attentional darwinism of YouTube is as much an explanation of this resurgence as the material itself, which Paolillo explains in terms of a social psychology of stigma as more people are tarred by assocation with flat earth and thus acquire a stake in defending it. It provides an environment in which certain themes are liable to thrive (an overturning of established authority, revelatory esotericism, a radical empiricism perceived to be liberating etc) if packaged together in a way which takes advantage of the affordances fo the platform. What really interests me is the entrepreneurship of the YouTubers within the flat earth community, as well as how techniques spread between them and competition drove innovation.

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3 Comments

  1. It seems to me that it would be extremely easy to manipulate people that are involved with this kind of flat earth thing. Because it seems to me that an assumption of A common human intelligence really just says that anything goes. So it is interesting when someone like this does a study on this particular phenomenon and identify certain characteristics; it seems to me that people are using what is generally understood as an open mind or what “appears“, what is apparent to experience, things like that, they’re using it in a particular religious way, away that I would identify as having no reflection upon their world. The idea of what is “aparent to one’s experience” really I think does not speak to all of humanity as much as it points to a specific type of person that I would categorize as, at least, I have a different kind of intelligence than I am, and through this discrepancy, easily manipulated.

    I wonder if the guy you’re citing explorer is how people that are of a conspiracy mindset think that they’re being manipulated. As if the “globe model” Is something that’s being imposed upon them. Because if this is the case, it appears to me that people are totally misunderstanding what power is and What what “ is apparent to experience”.

    So the easy way to manipulate people would be to actually try and manipulate them, use their paranoia in a way to create a particular ideology of flat earth and like conspiracies in order to get these people to perform as citizens in a particular manner which can be predicted and relied upon.

    I don’t know if that makes any sense. It just strikes me.

    I mean one could say that it is interesting that people honestly think in terms of flat earth, but I would also say that it doesn’t really matter because these people aren’t going to be attempting to engineer a spacecraft to go to the planet or anything. So this flat earth kind of conspiracy thing is just interesting. It just shows how there is no intelligence that stretches over all of humanity. Intelligence is a local phenomenon. I think the key point in looking at these Kind of conspiracy scienceis it could develop into a religious force. And so I say if indeed it could be mustard and do a sort of religion, then likewise it could be manipulated and controlled.

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