Art and article by Olivia Bono
“Why do you insist the Earth is flat? For what reason?” I was truly struck by this question, posted by Jer9999 on the Flat Earth Society’s online forums. I stumbled upon this comment after spending an embarrassingly long amount of time scrolling through a thread titled, “Does Flying Around the World in 1 Direction Prove the Earth is Round?” that I had found through Twitter. Jer9999 had just undergone a very long argument with a flat-earther (who sported an animated GIF signature straight out of 2005, despite the interaction taking place in 2014) about whether the government has hacked airplane pilots’ GPS monitors to hide the fact that NASA has been lying to us about the shape of our planet for centuries. This really got me thinking: why do conspiracy theorists insist on “facts” that can be so easily disproven? Not the political conspiracy theories, driven by a need to defend one viewpoint or another by accusing an opposition, but the truly separate ones. The theories that delve into the realm of science fiction and fantasy. Are they just trolling, or do they truly believe these things in earnest? Could it be simply for the thrill of resisting the public consensus?
“Look at a globe and try to put 2 and 2 together,” wrote the conspiracy theorist, who went by the name ‘jroa’, from behind their ashy skull avatar. “You are really embarrassing yourself here.”
The internet has done wonders for the spread of conspiracy theories. If you’ve been on social media at all in recent years, you’ve probably seen a lot of “evidence,” curated in masterposts and definitive threads. If you believe everything you read, then Avril Lavigne died years ago and was replaced by a lookalike; there’s a secret plotline in Star Wars in which there are actually two Luke Skywalkers, one slightly taller than the other
(aptly dubbed “Bigger Luke” and “Luke Prime”); and beloved actors Keanu Reeves and Nicolas Cage are immortal vampires. Even late-night host John Oliver has been trying to gain traction for his own theory, that Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen are one person moving faster than the human eye is able to perceive.
Spreading these kinds of conspiracies, getting invested in carefully-researched fantasies, is incredibly addictive. Hell, after gaining a reputation in high school as a serious journalist, I myself published an article in the school newspaper claiming a ghost haunted our halls. (I’m still not convinced that the time our school burned down on Thanksgiving in the 60s didn’t have ghostly consequences, considering the high density of false fire alarms we got during my time there.) But everyone knows these are all tongue-in-cheek, right? People just believe these for fun: no one really thinks that mountains are just the corpses of very big, very dead trees, right? Shaq was kidding when he claimed the Earth is flat, so the rest of them must be, too, right?
I’m not really sure.
Believing in hoaxes, conspiracies, and hidden truths isn’t a new phenomenon invented by bored internet teens–these concepts are so alluring that they’ve persisted for centuries.
Generations of bored teens have been questioning the government since way before the Internet was a thing. The theory that Paul McCartney had been secretly dead for three years was started by a handful of college kids in 1969. Recorded sightings of Bigfoot-like creatures date back to the 1400s, and alien sightings can be traced back to as early as Ancient Egypt.
We know about these supposed UFO sightings because the people who spotted them were important enough to have written them down. The pharaoh Thutmose II was the first to have his scribes report the “fiery disks” he saw in the sky. Since then, sightings were recorded by Greek generals, Roman historians, 9th century archbishops, and untold hundreds of newspapers. The year 1947, which spawned the terms “flying saucers” and “men in black” (the latter a staple of government-centric conspiracy theories), began an era of frequent 20th-century alien sightings. Claiming someone saw a flying saucer became the hottest trend; publications loved the sensationalism, but it’s unclear whether people really believed them. In ancient history, many powerful figures recorded UFO sightings and we remember them for it; in the last century, ordinary folk in places like Washington and New Mexico have followed suit. With society’s increasing appreciation for science, modern theorists aren’t as respected as the pharaohs and bishops of old, although they are remembered all the same. It’s clear a lot of older beliefs in the supernatural were cultural—a civilization that believed an immortal crocodile devours the hearts of the wicked surely had no problem assigning otherworldly qualities to lights in the sky. But things get interesting when these beliefs aren’t cultural. There has to be something that drives the modern man to believe in reptilian cover-ups when an increasingly jaded society labels you as a lunatic. What convinces someone to go against all known laws of science and accuse entire governments of hiding secrets about the very nature of our planet?
For one thing, it’s just plain exciting. See, in order to believe in the extraordinary or some outrageous belief that someone knows is wildly regarded as false, someone has to believe in one of two things: either the believer is the only one who knows it, and others would surely believe too if only they knew the real facts, or everyone else does know and is lying about knowing it. The latter is often attributed to governments or corporations or secret organizations. If a conspiracy theorist believes in one of these two situations, then they become privy to hidden knowledge, a hidden world away from the mundane. Let’s say for the sake of argument that maybe, somewhere out there, there is some kind of magic—maybe the Loch Ness Monster is real, maybe we have already made first contact with alien life, maybe the government is hiding the fact that gravity is a lie—how exciting would that be? Wouldn’t that make the people who believe in this stuff not weirdos, but rebels? Heroes?
There’s also a sort of camaraderie that comes from feeling like one of a group of “rebels.” The term alone invokes a connection to Star Wars, so think about how the rebels in the films interact—they’re all one big team, working together to outsmart the oppressive Empire. What little kid hasn’t wanted to be a rebel? The Rebel Alliance is undeniably cool, and everyone has a role, from pilot to strategist to spy. They even have multiple Lukes! When conspiracy theorists come together, comparing notes and validating each other’s “crazy” beliefs or assigning leadership roles on a dedicated forum, they feel like the Rebel Alliance. They feel like the unlikely heroes opposing a greater evil.
TBS shrewdly caught wind of this phenomena when they created their comedy series People of Earth, which finished its second season earlier this year. In the show, a support group of alien abductees find comfort in each other as they realize they all went through the same experience, despite being called crazy by the rest of their town. At the start of the show, we learn that one character in the group hasn’t been abducted, and his desire to join his friends in their beliefs and experiences fuels his interest in alien lore. He has nothing but his friends’ words and vague accounts of historic abductions to tell him that the alien conspiracy is real, but he believes anyway. Real-life conspiracy theorists are a lot like this character: they are willing to believe so-called crazy things to feel like part of a select group.
Even if most of this stuff is baloney in real life (I’m still waiting on confirmation of the existence of the arsonist ghost from my hometown—I’m telling you, there are some spooky happenings going on in that school), that doesn’t matter to the people who believe in them. They don’t let the public’s definitions of what “trees” and “mountains” and “international pop stars” should be hold them back—defying these definitions gives them a unique sense of both belonging and individuality. They feel like they belong to a close-knit group of rebels, fighting against “The Man,” but at the same time, they feel that they are part of a select group of only the shrewdest individuals who see past a conspiracy.
Think about it—if you thought you were one of the only people in the world who knew the truth about something big, wouldn’t it make you feel important? Special?
And with all the craziness, hurt, and heartbreak in the world right now, don’t we all want to feel a little bit special?