Two and a half years ago I went to a conference to take portraits of people who believe the earth is flat. I thought it would be a straightforward photography project. It was not.
The world is round. I’m confident about this. I say it as an opening disclaimer because, a little under two and a half years ago, I attended ‘FECON’ (an event less scatological than it sounds), the UK’s first ever Flat Earth Conference, to take portraits of the people who would be there. At the time, I was stunned by how there was even enough demand for it; I thought the matter had been laid to rest quite confidently some millennia ago. I’m not ashamed to say I was also morbidly curious about the people who would be going - both to speak and listen. Having said that, I also carried with me an optimism that it might not be so bad - there might be every possibility that the regular attendee would on average be more curious than conspiracist, and that maybe only a handful of people would turn up.
My optimism was largely a product of my lifelong interest in space and science and my faith that they will always win out. Among other things, I regularly stay up late to watch SpaceX launches and my favourite childhood TV show was Star Trek: The Next Generation, a show in which scientific analysis and long, diplomatic conversations always beat the lasers and trite quips of lesser SciFi. 'The first duty of every Starfleet officer,’ Captain Picard tells a junior officer in one stirring speech, ‘is to the truth - whether it is scientific truth, or historical truth or personal truth. It is the guiding principle upon which Starfleet is based.’ With virtually every after-school dinner of my youth eaten on board the Starship Enterprise, I became an adult imprinted with the progressive optimism and faith in science that Picard and his crew embodied.
With conspiracies still swirling unchecked in the wake of the Covid19 pandemic, that optimism would be quite helpful right now. Sadly, it was tackled firmly to the ground by one of the weirdest and most unsettling weekends I have ever experienced. On arrival at that conference, I had found myself thrust into an upside-down world where wrong is right, down is up, NASA is a scam and - don’t you see? - everything you’ve ever been told is a lie.
It’s April 2018 and I'm inside a dreary hotel in the centre of Birmingham. A damp, grey midlands afternoon dribbles outside, streaking dark rainwater down the decades-old concrete of the building. I am in one of a series of meeting rooms, joined together to make space for the weekend’s events. A brutal monolith from the outside, the building’s interior feels fractal - corridors lead to meeting rooms that open out into corridors that take you to more meeting rooms, ad infinitum. Each room nested inside this impossible vortex has the air of a low budget team-building 'away day', the kind with coloured post-its, mass-manufactured clicky hotel biros, bullet-pointed 'learning outcomes' and the kind of dreck coffee that you wouldn't be able to survive such an ordeal without. The carpets are patterned to disguise spills and flip charts stand huddled, white and bare, in the dark of each distant corner.
As I gulp my bad coffee with growing disquiet, I chat to someone who has just told me they drink their own urine to stay healthy and free of disease. Online, he's an enormously popular Flat Earth YouTuber. This weekend, he is one of the headline presenters. 'The biggest lie in history, is history,' he tells me, unprompted. 'You don't know who you are. You don't know where you're from.'
I had blundered, foolish and naive, into a world I didn't understand, where everyone around me believed - passionately, angrily, without the possibility of wavering - that the earth is anything but a sphere. That the odds are stacked against us. That our minds are being controlled. That the truth is out there, but it's being hidden from us in a grand conspiracy. I was peering over the edge of a rabbit hole down which every attendee had flung themselves with no hope of emerging. I forced another sip of body temperature coffee as I thought, perhaps not hard enough, about what to say next. 'So, what was it like the first time you drank your own piss?'
Months earlier I had sat in a small café around the corner from my cramped, rented London flat searching for a project to focus on before my seasonal photography work picked up in the Summer. My interests had always gravitated towards the corners of society that we don’t see much of - people on the fringe - but I was finding that gaining access to these communities was not always so easy. At the same time, I was spending probably too many hours on the internet, for better or worse, a byproduct of the free time I have every winter. My particular weakness was YouTube. In 2018, the Google-owned video platform had been straining for ever-higher viewing figures, massaging their algorithm to pump more and more videos in front of people at an alarming rate, showing them whatever performed best to keep them hooked. The strategy was working, but with unexpected side-effects.
One of the more prominent side-effects was a surge in views for ‘flat earth’ videos. It seemed people were finding them addictive to watch and, over and over, the algorithm duly gave them the hit they wanted. To watch a clutch of these videos in a row is not just about learning that the earth is flat, but that everyone in power is in on the game - NASA and the governments of the world are covering up a huge lie. ‘Do your own research,’ goes the common refrain in many videos. With YouTube immediately recommending even more flat earth videos for you to watch, it was hard not to. For a good number of people I would later meet, these marathon flat earth video sessions were the thin end of the wedge that would send their lives spiralling into a darkness that would see them lose friends, jobs and, in some cases, families.
While browsing, I chanced across the most surprising by-product of the YouTube algorithm and rampant flat-earth video popularity: the conference itself. Wondering if this might be a chance I couldn’t possibly pass by, I contacted the organiser - an energetic and friendly guy, 'G' - and we ended up speaking on the phone for over an hour. We talked about the conference, who was speaking, how hard it was to arrange a big event (the catering budget was a pain in the neck) and, from time to time, he would earnestly ask me why I still believed the earth was round ‘given all the evidence to the contrary’. I tried to tell him that I didn't think it was a matter of belief, that it was a matter of fact. Finally, he agreed that I could attend in a press capacity but I would still need to pay for a ticket. Conferences aren’t cheap after all.
Satisfied that I had gained entry to an event where I would be able to meet dozens of people in this particularly unusual fringe (thereby making the whole process that much easier) I thought it would be a relatively simple exercise: turn up, meet some flat earthers, take some portraits, do some follow-up shoots and work on it over the course of the next few months to produce a cohesive series. Maybe I would even pitch it somewhere, to a magazine perhaps.
It didn’t work out that way. After the weekend had finished, I was deeply shaken. This piece is the result of over two years of halting edits, redrafts and uneasy procrastination. As the world around us reels from the Covid19 pandemic, conspiracies are still here and stronger than ever: Bill Gates supposedly wants to commit mass mind-control through vaccination, anti-mask/virus-hoax demonstrations fill the streets of educated cities and 5G masts burn by the dozen, condemned by the acolytes of a conspiracy that believes the virus itself is not a hoax but instead a 'plandemic' to reduce the size of the population, its spread hastened by the masts they target.
I feel like I should be surprised by it all. But I’m not. I just keep thinking about that conference. I think especially about how the minds of those that attended were such fertile soil for the seeds of doubt, disbelief and distrust in the scientific knowledge that has brought our species so far and still yet has the chance to save us from oblivion. So if I was ever going to write about that weekend, it’s either now or not at all.
The opening event of the conference is standing room only. The first speaker stands at the front clasping a pint of strong French lager that he never drinks from throughout the next forty five minutes. The words 'Floaty Land' are on the slide projected behind him. ‘The burden of proof,’ he begins, ‘is only on us to prove the earth is not a ball.’ His presentation is the product of an experiment he'd tried on holiday by the coast not so long ago. He had lain prone where the beach meets the sea, pointing his digital camera at maximum zoom towards the islands on the horizon. Those islands, he had calculated, were higher than they should be, meaning that the earth was not as curved as most believed. QED, it must be flat. He continues, ‘Do I need to be an expert in maths, physics, astronomy? No. My peers have reviewed this work, and to me that’s as good as a peer review.’
To show us the video he'd filmed from the surf, he briefly minimises the presentation to reveal his desktop background: a picture of planet earth taken from space. Booing erupts in the audience. He suppresses a grin.
The next morning I learn that the flat earth is not the only conspiracy in play. I speak to a woman who believes that a human/reptile hybrid race is secretly controlling us all to serve an unknown agenda. A rigged banking system, the (ubiquitous) Illuminati, moon landings that never happened, 9/11-was-an-inside-job, 'false flag' school shootings with crisis actors and fake dead children, all of it pointing towards the same ominous conclusion: that the truth is being hidden from us all. After as many follow-up questions as I can muster, she can’t even begin to suggest what 'the truth' might be or why it needs to be concealed so carefully by a cabal of space lizards. But concealing it they are.
For G, the organiser, who I manage to corner during a lull in the day’s events, the Catholic Church is behind things. 'They want to hide God from us,' he claims. I ask him why, of all institutions, a religion would want to hide God. Surely she's central to the whole endeavour and the shape of the earth should have nothing to do with it. 'That's just something I can't answer right now,' he tells me. Whether he can’t tell me because he was just too busy organising or because he secretly suspects I am actually a priest in mufti sent from the Vatican to conspire against him, I don't know. Letting him get on with his work, I turn and speak instead to somebody who claims that gravity doesn't exist. Before I have the chance to float up to the ceiling, he tells me it's all due to density; any experiments that say otherwise (such as how objects of different densities fall at the same rate) are – obviously – fabricated to support the globe earth lie.
If you find yourself wondering how they can resolve their belief in a flat earth against such apparently contradictory things like the International Space Station, rocket launches, GPS, pilots who see the curvature of the earth, the moon landings and, at a bare minimum, the collected works of Aristotle, Archimedes and Eratosthenes, then I'll just cut right to it: they can't. Of course, they don't know that, but then they don't really seem to care, either. The Imaginary Space Station - as one attendee likes to call it - is just cutting edge CGI and people dangling from wires. Rocket launches? If they even do ascend, they just circle above a pancake planet. GPS? Your position is actually being triangulated by pseudo-satellites atop mountains around the edge of the disc. Pilots who see a curve? Lying, part of a grand conspiracy. Moon landings? Faked in TV studios in the desert. Ancient Greek philosophers? Debunked by (yes) YouTube videos.
It is as if you could have taken the entire attended gathering of the conference, shot them all into a low earth orbit to circle our very, very round planet several times, then landed them back again to find their beliefs even stronger than before. They would emerge, removing their helmets, to kiss the flat earth beneath them and exalt their claims with even greater fervor.
All this is to say that rational questions and arguments miss the point entirely. These are not rational beliefs, nor even really beliefs. They are more like identities, firmly established and fiercely defended. Their existence is not a happy one, either. It seemed to me that they were commonly the product of deep personal and social tragedy.
In the two years since attending, I’m sometimes asked to tell the story. The main reaction people have is to laugh - to laugh it off and to laugh them off. Then to just ignore it all and go back to whatever they were doing. Sure, I normally keep it light hearted, but only because nobody really wants to go deeper than that. Spend a little longer on the topic and the laughter stops.
Something I regularly heard during presentations and conversations was a resentment that went deeper than any of the more pedestrian 'distrust in government' clichés that are out there. Throughout the weekend, attendees variously mentioned bad experiences with early education, struggles with childhood illiteracy and, for more than a few, chronic social isolation. Around the room, heads would nod whenever anyone mentioned the ‘lies we were told at school’. The education system, and their experience of it, was an extension of the crooked system they thought was at work in the wider world, rather than the potential cause for what made them so likely to believe conspiracies in the first place.
For a few, some kind of personal trauma or major event - a divorce, a break-up, a bad trip - had happened to them directly before they realised that the earth was flat. ‘I had an experience with DMT [a psychoactive drug] that slapped me so hard in the face,’ announced one attendee during an open mic session, ‘that within four minutes I had seen God. Three weeks later I found out the earth was flat.’ For others, it was their growing belief in a flat earth that had prompted isolation from friends and family to begin with. On the first evening, a woman spoke to the room about how her flat earth obsession had isolated her entirely from her family. Her cheeks grew damp as she said how happy she was to finally meet other people who believed the same things she did. It seemed to me that this isolation only strengthened their beliefs because - through it all - they took solace in knowing they had received the truth where others remained unenlightened. From their noble isolation they could pity the non-believers.
Underneath every presentation there was what felt like a simmering disbelief that we could all possibly be so small, so insignificant. 'Can you really believe that we are on a tiny speck, shooting through an infinite space?’ asked a speaker on the second day, ‘I just can't go back to that way of living.' In (or on) a world that is flat, singular, finite and created just for us, there is meaning, purpose, a feeling of finally being special again and seeing the truth where others walk blind. Without a flat earth, 'you feel powerless, and they don't want us feeling special.'
Every evening a group of assorted press - a few documentarians, a reporter, a student, another photographer, a freelance writer and I - would gather in the bar to chew the day over. We huddled around cheap, flat beers and quietly discussed what we’d seen, wary of being overheard by any of the crowd around us. On the first evening, it was surreal and uneasy. By the third, it was nothing short of depressing. Losing what I had thought would have been some sort of calm and neutral point of view, I realised I was growing frustrated by the whole event.
What had been curious at first had morphed into concern and a sort of shame-by-proxy for everyone I spoke to. So many of these people had come to a point in their lives where believing in a flat earth seemed a good option for them. Many more had been rejected and cast out, isolated from loved ones who thought they'd cracked. It was vindicating and comforting for them to find and meet others who believed what they did, even if the meeting itself was in such dour surroundings. It was enough to generate the febrile atmosphere of a movement in genesis, an insurrection against the globe earth elite, the feeling that – finally! – it wasn’t just videos online anymore, watched from a bedsit after your family had disowned you, there were real people to talk to. And yet, just beneath the surface, there lay an ocean of hurt.
The other reaction people have to hearing about a flat earth conference is to wonder, ‘How much harm could it possibly do?’ It's a free country, after all - they’re entitled to their beliefs. What of it?
If you can hold the idea in your mind that the earth is flat and deflect all incoming logical argument or evidence to the contrary, you are able to believe and do even more. You can do this because you operate from a position where your worldview is driven by your identity, not from what can be scientifically or objectively observed, or what the experts tell you. As a flat earther you may well ‘do your own research’ but this is only ever done to gather the supporting material needed to hold your identity in place. It is confirmation bias, the facts twisted or fabricated where necessary to make sense of what you believe to be true. With a firm hold on your new identity, you are better able to evangelise the new beliefs that have given you solace, spreading misinformation even further.
The human race has survived and thrived, in part, because we are able to trust each other. I do not know how to operate a power plant, grow a crop, or develop medicine. I am very happy for others to do these things for me because I trust they are acting in good faith, know what they're doing, and know better than I do. I leave it to them and we all gain something from the exchange - a salary for them and electricity, food and good health for me.
When a worldview grows in a group of people that requires the belief that this trust has been fundamentally broken by the institutions of modern society, modern society feels the effects. Things get ugly. Vaccination rates drop and otherwise banished diseases make unnecessary comebacks. People hurt themselves self-medicating with drugs touted by quacks. Gunmen burst into pizza restaurants to bust child trafficking rings that don't exist. Mobile phone masts burn because people don't understand how they work and what they do. We vote for demagogues. We vote to harm ourselves.
It is the stuff of medieval witch dunking, of the monster under the bed. It is the rejection of intellectuals, of experts, of modern science. It is to embrace only that which comforts and gives a feeling of control. It's the sticking of fingers in ears and shutting of eyes to benefit the individual and damn the people, the society at large. This doesn’t just happen in a vacuum, it has knock-on effects. We laugh it off and ignore it at our peril.
For all of this, I still cannot bring myself to blame them as individuals. There will always be conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorists. There will always be ranks of charlatans and enough of the misinformed to keep them in business. Normally, they lie low in the more obscure corners of society the way that low-level muckraking goes on in even the most erudite of workplaces. And if it weren’t for that algorithmic quirk of YouTube those videos would not have gained such traction, so many of those people would not have been swept into the vortex and a conference like the one I attended would never have happened. I believe they are, organisers, speakers and attendees all, the victims of a bad equation and a society that would rather not think about them.
On the afternoon of the final day, three science PhDs from a prestigious London university arrive to take part in the grand finale: a debate between them and three of the weekend's biggest-hitting presenters. Standing uneasily at the back of the room, I watch as this sincere trio of well-meaning scientists fight Canute-like against a bewildering series of half-baked arguments and attempted gotchas from their opponents. They thought they were there to make the case that, yes, science is pretty sure the earth is round and, yes, we do know what we're talking about. They never stood a chance. The crowd was against them, hostile, seething. Before the debate the organiser, G, had put up a picture of a plastic globe dunked in a rubbish bin. During audience Q&A a woman at the front, feet away from the nearest scientist, wails about how she and her daughter had looked out to sea and realised that the horizon was level and how could they lie to her face like that? The scientists stared back at her, stunned.
This was my limit. Most of the other journos had left long ago after managing to stay for considerably less time. I quietly packed away my notes and camera gear, said goodbye to the lone remaining reporter, left to get in my car and drove off. When I returned home I put dinner in the oven, heaved a giant sigh, and settled down to an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Author's note: To protect the identities of those attending who, I hope, have some small chance of later changing their views and possibly regretting their attendance, names have either not been included or abbreviated and images that include faces have either not been shown or heavily obscured. I still have some optimism left.
I write a newsletter about the internet. It's called Internet Connection. There's a few hundred of us that fall down the rabbit hole every other week. Want to come along for the ride? Drop your email below.