Kelly Weill began hanging out online years ago — she remembers hacking into the Neopets community as a kid in the early 2000s — and now she does it professionally. “I cover the far right and the weird parts of the Internet for the Daily Beast,” said Weill. “That involves a lot of passive monitoring of extremist forums.”
Along with conspiracy theories about vaccines and the 2020 election, Weill began noticing something else. “One thing I kept seeing in these forums was people talking about flat earth; I thought they were kidding for a while,” she said. She found out they were dead serious about their belief that Earth, rather than a globe, is instead a flat disc (various strains of flat-earth theory posit a ring of ice at the circumference, or a giant dome above, or the trippiest concept of all — an endless plane).
Weill’s research into the wild world of flat-earth true believers has resulted in her first book, “Off the Edge: Flat Earthers, Conspiracy Culture, and Why People Will Believe Anything” (Algonquin).
Despite her initial surprise to find flat earthers among online forums for other conspiracy theories, Weill says it makes sense. “One of the best predictors for someone subscribing to a conspiracy theory is them subscribing to another conspiracy theory,” she said. “I think the through-line of a lot of conspiratorial beliefs is a lack of trust and a rejection of established narratives, a rejection of authority figures and public institutions.”
Lurking turned to communicating. “I was interested in understanding the characters behind it and what drove them,” she said of attending flat-earth conventions and talking to many participants. “As a species, we have the capacity to believe just about anything. Flat earth is a really good model for people to understand that people who are in their right minds, people who are reasonably smart, who function day to day in society, who you might even like as individuals, have the capacity to believe very strange things.”
Kelly Weill will read at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 24, in a virtual event hosted by Harvard Book Store.
Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at email@example.com.