I saw this book during Nonfiction November 2021 and I knew I had to read it. This book will quickly convince you of one thing; the fringe is the new normal.
Since 2015, there has been a spectacular boom in a nearly two-hundred-year-old delusion—the idea that we all live on a flat plane, under a solid dome, ringed by an impossible wall of ice. It is the ultimate in conspiracy theories, a wholesale rejection of everything we know to be true about the world in which we live. Where did this idea come from? Weill draws a straight line from today’s conspiratorial moment back to the early days of Flat Earth theory in the 1830s, showing the human impulses behind divergences in belief. Faced with a complicated world out of our individual control, we naturally seek patterns to explain the inexplicable. The only difference between then and now? Social media. And, powered by Facebook and YouTube algorithms, the Flat Earth movement is growing.
At once a definitive history of the movement and a readable look at its expansive, absurd, and dangerous present, Off the Edgeintroduces us to a cast of larger-than-life characters, from 19th-century grifters to 20th-century small-town tyrants to the provocateurs of Alex Jones’s early-aughts internet, whose rancor sowed the early seeds of our modern division. We accompany Weill to Flat Earther conferences, where we meet moms on vacation, determined creationists, scammy YouTube celebrities and their victims, neo-Nazi rappers, and even a man determined to fly into space in a homemade rocket-powered balloon—whose tragic death proves as senseless and absurd as the theory he set out to prove.
Incisive and clear-eyed, Off the Edge tells a powerful story about belief, exploring how we arrived at this moment of polarized realities and explaining what needs to happen so that we might all return to the same spinning globe. from Goodreads
After I moved to Chicago in 2019, I started seeing a lot of sidewalk art advertising for The Flat Earth Society. It looked like a spray painted stencil. Truly, I thought it was a joke at first. I mentioned it to a friend who assured me that it was, most definitely, real. I vividly remember thinking that it was a bit bizarre that this fringe society was popping up in 2019.
So, when I saw the book Off the Edge on Rennie’s What’s Nonfiction? I knew I wanted to read it. I needed to find out more about how this is happening – how are people truly questioning something that has been accepted fact for so long? What else will people believe?
This book does an amazing job of laying down the history, resurgence, and repercussions of believing in a Flat Earth. I found myself less interested in the history. After all, loads of things make sense before science was able to prove otherwise. The domed model of flat Earth could have made conceivable sense until the US and Russia sent men into space. But, as the author shows, time and time again when a conspiracy is proven erroneous, the true believers simply doubles down in their arguments.
“…the idea that you have special knowledge, that you know things other people don’t, and that if people would just pay attention to the signs, then they would make sense of it.”Off the Edge by Kelly Weill
Where the book really grabbed my attention was in the post-internet age. The internet, and the ready availability of information, has given rise and popularity to a number of conspiracy theories. I used to joke that you were always two clicks away from porn on YouTube, but now I find that this was on purpose. The algorithm determined that the more shocking the videos, the longer people would watch them which meant more ad revenue. As the author points out, “There is big money in distrust.” And YouTube capitalized on this by offering their site as “alternative news.” This, in turn, gave rise to people like Alex Jones and the wide-spread availability of information about Flat Earth. By 2018, a researcher about the spread of Flat Earth and YouTube found that nearly all believers had been converted to Flat Earth based on a video from YouTube.
Legislation and internal changes in internet companies have led to changes in the algorithm and flags for misinformation. In turn, this has made it more difficult to find videos and information on Flat Earth. And, if you are prone to conspiracy theories, this means that the world is conspiring against you to suppress your vital information.
“Belief in conspiracy theories is a unifying feature of extremist groups of every political and religious stripe.”Off the Edge by Kelly Weill
The overlaps between Flat Earth and anti-semitism, Q-Anon, 9/11 truthism, and election deniers should not have been a surprise to me but, it was. Weill make the connections easily. Large portions of Flat Earth are violently anti-semitic. Flat Earth societies have sections where you can buy books about the “truth” of the holocaust and other evidence that Hitler was just misunderstood. The more I read, the more I realized my error. I saw a conspiracy theory as all consuming, meaning you could have only one. It seems that once you believe people are lying to you, the lies are everywhere.
This book left me wanting to know more of the arguments for Flat Earth. How, in the face of irrefutable evidence that the Earth is round, are people actually arguing for flat? I would have loved it if the book could have added a chapter on their experiments or the arguments proffered by the group. Sadly, this meant that I went looking for them on the internet which is sure to throw more ridiculous stuff my way. Darn algorithm!
Weill states that people turn to conspiracy theories in moments of instability. At their most vulnerable, they feel power in being the person that really understands something like no one else. In a society where someone else grew my food, built my car, constructed the building I live in, I feel the need to rely on my fellow man – not distrust. In the end, I feel sad for those whose faith in society is so shaken that conspiracies take hold of them.
Tell me, please! Are you interested in conspiracy theories?
It’s kind of amazing that the flat earth history and conspiracy has so much information behind it that it can be packed into a book! I’d be curious to know how certain conspiracies get that traction and kick off.
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This is where I started as well. Sadly, each one seems to boil down to a fragile at-risk person finding purpose in conspiracy. It is such an interesting read!
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Amazing review!! You captured the significance of this one SO much better than I could! Also, how insane that you saw sidewalk art advertising for the Flat Earth Society! Just… wow. This stuff permeates so much, I think even seeing that kind of “advertising” is harmful, as it makes it seem more normalized and less the kind of shit that should be lurking on unsavory and sparsely populated corners of the internet.
Better understanding the YouTube algorithm (and actually, just how much of a menace YouTube is) was a major benefit for me from this one. I try to keep the lessons I learned from it in mind too, that responding to extreme content is what gets more of it shoved down our throats.
Also this: “In the end, I feel sad for those whose faith in society is so shaken that conspiracies take hold of them.” I can’t agree enough. It makes me so sad that this is the case.
I’m so glad I could put this on your radar and that it was enlightening for you (although sorry for being responsible for directing all this disturbing info into your brain now)! PS my name is Rennie, much as I would absolutely love to share a name with the Ratatouille rat 🙂 ❤️
Rennie! I am so sorry! I know your name (I consider myself a superfan of your blog) but I broke my computer between Christmas and now. It was typing like an old Brother’s electric typewriter. Now, I have this new one that is so fast but spellchecks things just for the heck of it! Ugh. I need to fix all the settings but NOT before I fix your name on the blog post. Thank you for your beautiful comments and letting me know about the name typo.
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Oh no worries!!! I’m sorry to hear your computer broke but maybe good to have a speedy new one, once you adjust to it?
I’m so used to correcting my name, for whatever reason Rennie is a weird one for people to hold onto and I get every variation of it under the sun…in person as well as online! After not mentioning it before I still have people calling me Renee for years, so now I try to point it out when I can 😂
PS Superfan! That made me smile! I feel the same about yours, even if I’ve been super inactive lately.
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Oof, that is a lot of correcting. Good for you though, this is the kind of self-advocacy I struggle with so I love seeing it in others.
As for the inactive – me too! We will get there when we get there!
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