Off the Edge: Flat Earthers, Conspiracy Culture, and Why People Will Believe Anything

Algonquin. Feb. 2022. 256p. ISBN 9781643750682. $27.95. SOC SCI
A fringe theory dating to the mid-19th century holds that the Earth is not a globe, but a flat plane. Daily Beast reporter Weill traces the unlikely trajectory of this belief, from the seminal Flat Earthers Samuel Rowbotham (an English inventor) and John Dowie (founder of the planned community of Zion, IL), to the morass of conspiracy theories proliferating online in the era of Trump and QAnon. Kept alive for decades as much by satirists as by its few adherents, Flat Earth theory now thrives on social media. Weill argues that the internet accelerates radicalization and allows conspiracy theories to intersect and mix, abetted by wide-scale anxiety brought on by economic uncertainty, social unrest, and the global pandemic. With notable empathy, Weill explains how conspiracy theory ecosystems isolate adherents both from sources of factual information and from family and friends. As with exit from a cult, outreach and trust-building are the most hopeful tools to encourage people out of conspiratorial thinking, she writes. Meanwhile, all press is good press for conspiracy cults, and Weiss acknowledges the conundrum that media attention (including her own reporting and this book) creates visibility and, likely, new followers.
VERDICT An illuminating study that locates the common human psychological impulses behind conspiracy culture.
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