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YouTube to blame for rise in flat Earth believers, says study

CNET logo CNET 18/02/2019 Mark Serrels
a group of people holding a sign: "This sign is flat -- the Earth is not!" said one marcher, urging people not to regress to an obsolete worldview science helped overturn. © CNET

"This sign is flat -- the Earth is not!" said one marcher, urging people not to regress to an obsolete worldview science helped overturn.

Asheley Landrum is an assistant professor of science communication at Texas Tech University. Her focus: how cultural values affect our understanding of science. Most recently she's been looking at the rise of flat Earth theory.

Incredibly, more people than ever believe in a flat Earth. Google searches for "flat earth" have grown massively over the past five years and flat Earth conventions have begun popping up all over the globe.

That's where Landrum focused her research.

Landrum interviewed 30 people who attended one flat Earth convention and found that all but one became flat Earthers after watching videos on YouTube.

She presented her research at an event run by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. 

While Landrum didn't explicitly blame YouTube for the rise in flat Earth believers, she does believe that Google could be doing more to stop the spread of scientifically incorrect ideas.

"There's a lot of helpful information on YouTube but also a lot of misinformation," she said, as reported by The Guardian. "Their algorithms make it easy to end up going down the rabbit hole, by presenting information to people who are going to be more susceptible to it."

Google has acknowledged there's more it could do to combat the spread of false information on YouTube and, as recently as January, outline new plans designed to push back.

"We'll begin reducing recommendations of borderline content and content that could misinform users in harmful ways—such as videos promoting a phony miracle cure for a serious illness, claiming the earth is flat, or making blatantly false claims about historic events like 9/11," the YouTube team said, in a post describing new measures in the process of being implemented. The YouTube team admitted this would be a "gradual change".

Interestingly Landrum called on scientists themselves to fight back by using YouTube as a platform to communicate their own work.

"We don't want YouTube to be full of videos saying here are all these reasons the Earth is flat," she said. "We need other videos saying here's why those reasons aren't real and here's a bunch of ways you can research it for yourself."


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