Last month, a bevy of flat earthers descended upon Birmingham for the UK’s first-ever flat earth convention, and the event attracted speakers and members from across the globe.
It also attracted Vice’s Tom Usher, who attended in hopes of discovering why people – including his own mother – have bought into the notion that the planet they call home is anything other than a sphere.
So how do people come to believe this stuff? For my mom's part, it was after watching some YouTube videos and realizing that "with all this movement, water stays flat, calm, and reflective to the point of being a perfect mirror, something that is not possible on a curve."
But what about the people at the convention?
"I got into the theory around when Trump came out," explained Steve, who was wearing a snazzy flat Earth T-shirt. "I started looking into Hillary, then [the debunked conspiracy theory] Pizzagate, around March 2017. [Trump] was the catalyst to seeing that maybe there was a mass indoctrination going on—he kicked off my research into the Illuminati and the deep state. It took me about three months to get my head around it, and six months to accept it, and now I really know we're not on a spinning ball."
Usher found that – like Steve – most of those who’ve been hooked by the flat earth movement seem predisposed to buying into conspiracy theories:
"I think conspiracy theories like 9/11 and the fake moon landing keep your mind receptive and take you on this new journey toward the truth," Gary John, the event organizer, told me. "When you look at the moon landings, what do you notice? When you look at what you've been shown in the past, you think, Hang on a minute, I've noticed a bit more. It's almost like you read a book and you don't understand it, then two years later, you read the same book again and you do understand it. The book hasn't changed—it's the same words—but you've changed. So [becoming a flat earther] made me more skeptical, and more aware."
Many people at the convention also pointed to the issue of power and distrust of those who wield it – a theme that seems to go hand-in-hand with the recent surge in populism.
"Power has always been taken away from the people—that's the way the world is going—and this is one of those things where we're taking the power back: We are the center of it, and we're not being ripped off," said Sarah, who was selling T-shirts. "They've got control of your reality, your perception, and even the way you are. And the story is so flimsy from day one—like, how did we all believe it? It's just conditioning from an early age."
Through believing, they have gained a sense of order to their lives—an alternative belief system. It's a crutch, almost, in much the same way faith can help religious believers feel more secure about the world and their place in it. And, in its essence, there's nothing too wrong about that. Where it becomes problematic is the general distrust for modern science—a very helpful thing in all of our lives, and something you'd be actively harming yourself to reject.