We all have one. That friend or relative who cannot hold a conversation without bringing up their pet conspiracy theory. The one who believes COVID-19 is a hoax or that a certain former secretary of state actually wore a mask made from the face of a dead child. The one who frightens and confuses you in equal measure, leaving you to wonder what happened to your dear friend or favorite uncle. The one you might be thinking about cutting off, because the mere thought of listening to one more lecture about the faked moon landing sends you around the bend.
Before you do, however, you really should read Off the Edge: Flat Earthers, Conspiracy Culture, and Why People Will Believe Anything by Daily Beast reporter Kelly Weill. Since starting at The Daily Beast in 2016, Weill has focused on how conspiracy theories flourish on social media. In Off the Edge, Weill uses flat-eartherism as a case study, documenting its surprising roots in a 19th-century socialist utopian commune, its truly astonishing endurance and popularity, and its links to other conspiracy theories, including QAnon. In addition to conducting meticulous research for her debut book, Weill had searching and substantive conversations with flat-earth believers that informed her understanding of how conspiracy theories evolve, grow and converge. She is especially critical of the role YouTube and Facebook have played in this history, but she is equally clear that the mainstream media, including some of her own articles, are also at fault.
Weill’s investigation of flat-eartherism makes clear that adherence to a conspiracy theory is not intellectual but emotional. Fear and uncertainty about the world and one’s place in it fuel a desperate desire for clarity—even if that clarity is rooted in a nonsensical worldview that drives a wedge between the believer and their loved ones. But there’s still hope for these broken relationships. Weill shows that people can and do recover from their fever dreams, but not through intellectual argumentation alone. If the exploitation of fear can divide us, only compassion and openheartedness can lay the groundwork to draw us together again.