YouTube is partially to blame for the rise in people believing the Earth is flat, according to a new study

Falling down the rabbit hole of YouTube videos.

caption
Falling down the rabbit hole of YouTube videos.
source
Robert Alexander / Getty

  • YouTube is partially to blame for people becoming Flat Earthers, according to a new study.
  • Researchers asked people at their annual conferences what made them start to believe the Earth was a flat disc.
  • All but one said it was recommended videos on YouTube.
  • Previous research has shown if you believe one conspiracy theory you’re more likely to believe another.
  • Often, it’s about standing out from the crowd.

YouTube is fueling people’s beliefs that the world is flat, according to a new study. Researchers from Texas Tech University interviewed 30 people at the Flat Earthers annual conference in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 2017, and again last year in Denver, Colorado, about how they came to the conclusion the Earth is a disc, rather than a sphere.

All but one of the people interviewed said they changed their minds about the Earth being round after watching YouTube conspiracy videos.

Most had also been watching videos about other conspiracy theories, like alternative explanations for the 9/11 Twin Towers attack, and whether man really walked on the moon. Apparently, YouTube lined up videos about the Earth being flat to automatically play afterwards.

Science communication professor Asheley Landrum, who led the research, told the Guardian the platform wasn’t doing anything wrong, but its algorithm was making it easy for people to fall “down the rabbit hole” because it presents “information to people who are going to be more susceptible to it.”

“Believing the Earth is flat in of itself is not necessarily harmful, but it comes packaged with a distrust in institutions and authority more generally,” she said. “We want people to be critical consumers of the information they are given, but there is a balance to be had.”

Read more: One viral thread shows how quickly YouTube steers people to wacko conspiracy theories and false information

Earlier this year, YouTube announced in a company blog post that it would recommend less “borderline” content, which includes Flat Earth theories and bogus cures for serious illnesses.

“We think this change strikes a balance between maintaining a platform for free speech and living up to our responsibility to users,” the company said in its blog post.

False information in a video doesn’t necessarily violate YouTube’s guidelines unless it involves hate speech, harassment, or scams, but ultimately it’s determined on a case by case basis. So it’s a challenge for the YouTube algorithm to pick up all content that could potentially be harmful.

The platform is currently working on ways to give users more information about the things they watch on YouTube, for example, adding links to third party sources to give context about the stories, including flat earth videos.

“YouTube is a platform for free speech where anyone can choose to post videos, as long as they follow our Community Guidelines,” A YouTube spokesperson told INSIDER.

“Over the last year we’ve worked to better surface credible news sources across our site for people searching for news-related topics, begun reducing recommendations of borderline content and videos that could misinform users in harmful ways, and introduced information panels to help give users more sources where they can fact check information for themselves.”

The company has plans to roll out these changes to more countries soon, and the systems will become more accurate over time.

Earth, but flat.

caption
Earth, but flat.
source
Ian Cuming / Getty

Why people like conspiracies

In 2017, a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology found that some people like believing in conspiracy theories because they want to be original.

The results also showed that believing one conspiracy theory makes it more likely you’ll believe another, and that there was a correlation between this endorsement and the need to not follow the crowd.

The authors concluded that the results highlighted a neglected function of conspiracy theories: to present oneself as distinct from everyone else.

“All humans share not only the need to belong and affiliate with others but also to be different and stick out from them, to be an identifiably unique individual,” they wrote.

In other words, if we are seen as the conspiracy theorist, we might not be regarded as always correct, but we will probably be remembered.

Read more: Around a third of certain populations think their governments are ‘hiding the truth’ about immigration – here’s why some people believe conspiracy theories

Astronomer Stuart Clark told Business Insider people may believe the world is flat because there is a tendency to reject the reality of science when it becomes too complicated, and instead accept comfortable myths.

“Things that make them feel at home, things that make them much happier that they know what’s going on,” he said in a video. “Maybe this obsession with the Flat Earth is one of those. Or maybe they’re just contrarian. I don’t know, it’s one of those things that I find so difficult to get my head around. I really do.”