We stood in the parking lot staring at the evening sky for 20 minutes. Watsun Atkinsun had just bummed a cigarette and held it up with two fingers, tracing the streaks of jet exhaust above us. He went on about chemtrails, direct energy weapons, and the arsenal of tools the sorcerer elite had deployed against humanity.
The tattoo artist from Portland, Maine, was inked from head to toe in occult patterns, Iron Maiden insignia, and a neck piece that read: Not afraid to ride. Not afraid to die. Atkinsun drew on his menthol and returned to our conversation.
"The globe model is the easiest thing in the world to disprove,” he said. “We know the world is flat. But what's next?"
I had no clue. I nodded politely and went back inside.
It was Day Two of the first-ever Flat Earth International Conference and I was fried. I had spent the last 48 hours in a hotel ballroom with over 500 flat earthers, listening to hours of lectures from apocalyptic preachers, crank podcast hosts, and self-proclaimed scientists. Just about every conversation was some variation of the one I had with Atkinsun.
I had come to this conference, held on November 9 and 10 in Cary, North Carolina, to meet flat earthers in the flesh and understand how social media and our current political landscape are breathing new life into this ancient and all-too-modern fringe belief.
Like most people, my first introduction to the movement had been through online beefs between flat earth-espousing celebrities like B.o.B. and Kyrie Irving, and public intellectuals like Bill Nye and Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Flat eartherism appeared to be a quirky, benign outgrowth of conspiracy theories in the internet era.
But the deeper I got into the underground Facebook communities, YouTube channels, and blogs where flat earthers congregate, the more it seemed anything but benign. This is a group of people who have entirely reconstructed their universe out of self-righteousness and spite for authority. It is a worldview where dissent is demonized and pride supersedes fact. The flat earth movement is a look into a post-truth future and a canary in the coal mine of our political discourse. And this conference was the first time the growing community would leave their online forums and come aboveground.
The event proceeded like any other conference—exhibitors in the hallway, speakers in the ballroom, breaks between talks to stretch your legs, and an open bar in the evening. In the hallway, a craftsman with white hair down to his shoulders showed off wooden models of the flat earth, as old ladies hocked self-published conspiracy theory books a few tables down.
For the most part, no one stood out in the mostly middle-aged, white, male crowd, each of whom paid upwards of $100 to attend. Many attendees, upon finding out I was a journalist, asked jokingly, “Don’t we look so normal?”
For conference organizer and conspiracy filmmaker Robbie Davidson, this was the beginning of a revolution. In his opening speech, Davidson drew direct links between his work and that of Martin Luther, who posted his 95 theses against the Roman Catholic Church exactly 500 years prior.
"This marks a new reformation. Right now, this day will affect millions of people," Davidson said proudly.
As I’d come to find out, the shape of the world is only half the story of flat eartherism. It is also a full assault on authority and its trappings. Resurgence of the idea had traditionally coincided with watershed moments in history beginning with the Protestant reformation, then the Industrial Revolution, and seemingly again now.
As Atkinsun told me, “World War III has already begun. It’s not against North Korea but it’s happening against the sovereign world citizen. There’s a full frontal assault on freedom, on our minds, on our Earth and the flat earth is just one little stepping stone in seeing the deception.”
Most of the attendees I met had only become flat earthers two years ago, when Eric Dubay published “The Flat Earth Conspiracy” and launched a YouTube phenomenon. All told, the conference’s featured presenters had over 680,000 YouTube subscribers and more than 90 million views. The movement has tapped into the same sense of disenchantment Donald Trump rode into the Oval Office and now, empowered by online echo chambers, it likewise threatens rationality in scientific and political discourse.
But to flat earthers, it doesn’t matter who sits in the White House, which they see as the latest iteration of a fraud dating back five centuries.
The story, according to Davidson's documentary, ImpossiBall, begins with Nicolaus Copernicus, whose theory of heliocentricity, which positions the Sun as the centre of the universe, was seized upon by the ruling elite. As Mark Sargent, a prominent flat earth YouTube personality, said onstage, "I don't necessarily want to get into naming, whether it’s the Illuminati, or the Bilderbergs, or the Trilateral Commission, or the Vatican, or on and on. But it is a small scary group of smoking men sitting around a long table."
As flat earthers see it, this elite propagated the "lie" that the world is round and exists in an infinite universe of billions of planets, many with a chance of hosting alien life. This lie was conceived to distance humans from God and usurp his role on Earth.
"They want to hide God," was a common refrain from behind the podium, one which nearly always received applause. For flat earthers, then, the only way to reclaim humanity's identity and liberty in this corrupt society is to buck all authority and re-establish man and Earth at the centre of the universe.
The flat earth is the ultimate conspiracy. If you could be lied to about the very ground you stand upon and convinced not to believe your very own senses (all of which supposedly point to a flat earth), then you could be lied to about anything. It’s the logical conclusion of the conspiracy rabbit hole conference attendees had been digging down for years.
The Moon landing and the September 11 terror attacks were the litmus test of "globeheads" who could be converted. "If they believe the official story on either of those, then forget about it. Talk about sports or something," said Rob Skiba, a prominent Biblical literalist who built his name researching an ancient race of giants described in the Old Testament, during his talk onstage.
The movement encourages people to question everything they are being told, to do their own research, and draw their own conclusions. These are healthy tenets of life in a democratic society. But when combined with conspiratorial paranoia and a belief that being criticized means you’re on the right track, it results in an entirely warped reality.
“Of all the things to call a person, you can call them a troglodyte, a moron, a retard,” as Rob Munroe, a mechanical engineer at the conference, told me. “But if you call them a flat earther, it’s worse than all of this. That’s a hint they’re hiding something.”
With no one to trust in government or the scientific community, flat earthers turn inwards to find their evidence. They espouse zetetics, a 19th century philosophy that takes human sensory experience as the highest form of truth.
In this vein, a nonprofit called “FE Core” was launched at the conference to support further scientific endeavors on the subject. Part of the project includes a $1.4 million exploration mission to send a crew of flat earthers to the ice wall, the edge of the world—otherwise known as Antarctica. And later that month, California daredevil “Mad Mike” Hughes announced he would be shooting himself 1,800 feet in the air aboard a home-made rocket crowdfunded by flat earthers, presumably to prove there is no curvature in the earth.
"Unless we're out there testing and exploring, we're no different than the physicists making shit up," said Jeran Campanella, conference presenter and host of the Jeranism YouTube channel, which boasts nearly 85,000 subscribers.
It would appear flat earthers’ anti-authoritarian streak seeps into their own ranks. One woman was ejected from the conference for heckling an end-times Christian preacher, an expulsion that triggered whispers and accusations that Robbie Davidson or other speakers were actually puppets of the elite.
Apart from its shock value, the flat earth idea does provide some sense of solace for its believers. On an individual level, outright denial of fact offers a way to cope with the cruel world beyond online chat rooms.
"The reason they embrace these notions that the Boston Marathon bombing or Sandy Hook never happened, [is that] they don't want to live in a world that innocent school children can go to school and end up dead on a classroom floor," Ninamary Maginnis told me. Maginnis was a proud “globe defender” but had come to the conference in a desperate attempt to reconnect with a conspiracy-obsessed niece she hadn't seen in years.
In some ways, the movement speaks to fears within us all—that we're being lied to about what's best for us, that society is moving too fast, that we're being left behind. The flat earth is a reconstruction of the universe to one where you're on top, where you possess a knowledge no one else has, see a truth no one else does, and it's everyone else—not you—that's being left behind.
As we stood under chemtrails and waves of weaponized 5G waves in the parking lot, Watsun Atkinsun agreed. For him, and for others, the flat earth is liberation from the pressures of the modern world and a lens through which to reinterpret everything.
“We are in one of the darkest nights of the soul of humanity. So the flat earth is just one of those fallacies you dismantle and then you become part of this illuminated resistance,” he told me. “You become a part of the revolution awakened. It’s the greatest sense of true freedom.”
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