Off the Edge: trying to understand conspiracy theorists

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


I was a little worried that this book would stress me out and make my eye twitch (happened last time I tried to read climate fiction), but I decided to risk it. I read an excerpt somewhere and requested it through my library. It sat on my shelf awhile before I got brave enough to dig in.

I was relieved by the first few chapters. It goes through the history of the flat earth movement from the 1800s England. It discusses the people who popularized the idea, and how each generation changed it a little.

Then the internet hits it, and I start to feel twitchy. I'd been lulled into reading it before bed (I can't read fiction before bed because I'll just sit there for hours and hours with it), but then all of a sudden, there's Infowars. That's nightmare material! I had to make this my lunchtime book after that. I can't read anything about QAnon right before sleep.

A lot of the second half of the book is how flat earth theory is a sort-of gateway theory. Once people are into it, they seem to be more open to other theories, like the vaccines will make you magnetic. Also, the author discusses the insularity of belonging to this movement- people who insist that the earth is flat and the global earth is a conspiracy often lose friends, break off relationships with family members, and are sometimes fired from their jobs. Then, they bond even closer to their like-minded internet friends.

Social media algorithms come up as well; the book shows how someone's otherwise non-conspiratorial YouTube searches can lead them into conspiracy theory videos. Honestly, it's pretty scary.

While the author clearly doesn't buy into flat earth, she's compassionate to the kinder and more sincere followers, but she also points out that some people who believe this also believe in violent or bigoted theories. (Like the great replacement theory, that was tragically in the news recently.)

I think that the last ten pages or so was the best part of the book- most of it felt pretty hopeless- as Ms. Weill says, "When some weirdo is sending spittle flying in the direction of my kid while yelling about a hoax he saw on the internet, how am I supposed to politely debunk his premises?" It's a thorny problem. I've been reading about people who have lost family members to QAnon- it can change people until they're barely recognizable. But the ray of hope comes at the end, and part of it is stories from two different men who went down rabbit holes and then found their ways back.

I was going to say something snarky about some coincidence that I saw while reading this book (it covers Y2K, as does the other non-fic book I was reading at the time, The Nineties). There were others, and I was going to make a joke. But that was before the shooting in Buffalo, and now it doesn't seem funny at all. I recommend this book because I think that these conspiracy theories that are becoming so prevalent are dangerous, and I need to stop laughing and start trying harder to understand them.


Oh, and here's another article: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/05/19/cult-or-conspiracy-the-gop-is-no-longer-a-normal-political-party/?itid=hp_opinions

 

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