Flat Earthers may have accidentally debunked their own absurd theory in front of the documentary filmmakers of Behind the Curve (now available to stream on Netflix), but they're far from defeated.
In fact, a conversation this week between two of the standout conspiracy theorists featured in the film proves they feel more empowered than ever.
"We're a week after the Netflix release, and my email load doubled," Mark Sargent told Patricia Steere on Wednesday's episode of The Secret Show, a DIY YouTube series that has pumped out 280 episodes to date. "In the end, it will plant so many seeds that we will be able to reap a lot of stuff from it."
"I've received a huge amount of subscribers since this film came out," Steere added.
Although she admitted a percentage of those new subscribers could just be internet trolls intending to hate-watch the content she offers, the pair of established stars in the Flat Earth community are both witnessing an old media adage in action: There is no such thing as bad press.
Yes, those who accept the onslaught of NASA video footage documenting decades of space exploration as real and true will simply be amused by Behind the Curve. The film, directed by Daniel J. Clark, approaches the subject with a clear scientific point of view. Among the more credible voices in the film is Commander Scott Kelly, a former NASA astronaut, who made this writer roar with laughter when recounting how he became familiar with the conspiracy theory that has been gaining more traction over the years.
"First time I ever heard about Flat Earthers was, I think, when I was in space last, and I saw the stuff on social media," he said. "I can't believe I'm talking about this."
But those viewers inclined to question everything — a piece of advice Sargent offers while speaking to a Nightline correspondent in the film — will be tempted to take the Flat Earthers seriously. And according to Sargent and Steere, thousands may have already jumped down the rabbit hole, which has already lured an unbelievable number of minds. Steere's YouTube channel has 18,000 subscribers, while Sargent currently broadcasts from his mother's house to 76,000 subscribers.
They're an affable pair with clear chemistry (possibly even romantic) and a good sense of humor. They're happily distracted by just about anything that pops up during their broadcasts — including Steere's beloved cats — and interact more like two friends catching up over drinks than seasoned hosts putting on a show. They're politely stubborn in their willfully ignorant beliefs and completely comfortable being judged for them. It's no wonder they made excellent documentary subjects. Perhaps a reality show is next.
Sargent's daily uniform seems to be khaki shorts, a rotating series of dark-colored caps, and black T-shirts advertising his movement. Two of his clear favorites read "I Am Mark Sargent" and "Flat Earth Army." Steere, on the other hand, seems like a more seasoned professional and is well spoken, even if what she's saying is categorically false.
"This thing, in the end, is going to be a catalyst for people to look into Flat Earth," Steere reasoned. "And some of those people are going to wind up right here as Flat Earthers, because it's the truth."
"We've essentially reached through their television screens and grabbed them by their shoulders, and shook the hell out of them," she said. "Flat Earth is here! You might think we're crazy, but we seem pretty damn normal, don't we? Because we do in this film."
And that should be a scary statement to anyone who values actual science. Sargent and Steere are prime examples of a new normal emerging in America in the wake of the 2016 presidential election of Donald Trump, a man who calls climate change science a hoax and has taken advantage of the media's hunger for sensationalism to nurture a cult-like following of admirers allergic to facts. Objective truths are increasingly disregarded as opinions, and subjective opinions are becoming the gold standard of truth.
After witnessing Kim Kardashian and her family leverage a sex tape to build an empire, and seeing streams of R. Kelly music soar in response to disturbing sexual abuse allegations shared (again) in a Lifetime documentary, it's a pretty safe bet that Behind the Curve will enable Flat Earth conspiracy theorists while exploiting them for entertainment value.
To the film's credit, it does communicate through interviews with various scientific minds that Flat Earthers pose a serious risk to society, with astronaut Scott Kelly pointing toward the current White House administration's position on climate change as an example. Their problematic perspective — that the Earth is actually an extravagantly constructed set of some kind, with two giant bulbs rotating over its flat surface, enclosed along its circular edges by a giant ice wall, and encased from above by a clear dome — is based on absolutely zero credible evidence, a poor understanding of physics, and the plot of the 1998 Jim Carrey movie The Truman Show.
Behind the Curve navigates the subject with plenty of humorous winks and nods at the ridiculous nature of the Flat Earthers' belief system, but also features multiple professional scientists imploring viewers to resist mocking these people. Shaming these people, argued physicist Dr. Spiros Michalakis, will only "push these individuals at the fringe of society, and then society just lost them."
He presents a thoughtful challenge to anyone concerned about the rising tide of anti-intellectualism that fuels the Flat Earth conspiracy theories online — and now on Netflix and other platforms distributing this documentary, which has potential to do exactly what Dr. Michalakis is warning against.
But it's hard to hold that possibility against the filmmakers, because there is a catch-22 inherent in documenting the absurd. Even by writing this article, we're giving Flat Earthers more exposure, and Mark Sargent will likely be delighted.
During his conversation with Patricia Steere, he proudly declared, "I'd sell a finger to have Time magazine have me on the front cover, saying, 'Is he the most dangerous man in the world of science?'"
So far, the media has been focusing on how two experiments, conducted in the film by Flat Earth YouTube personalities Bob Knodel and Jeran Campanella, only produced evidence that our planet is, in fact, round. But these people are true believers. They're not going to let a silly thing like evidence discredit or deter their delusions. They're on a mission to convince as many people as possible to join the party, and very optimistic about their chances to one day become the majority.
"Jeran should not worry that he had a botched experiment and proved the globe," Steere said while dismissing the negative media coverage. "People are coming to his channel now that never knew he existed; same with me, same with everybody in the documentary. And that will spill over to everyone that wasn't in the documentary that is a Flat Earther."
"I mean, on the surface, it looks pretty horrible," she continued. "I mean, people are saying, 'Flat Earth has been proven a lie because you guys debunked yourself in Behind the Curve.' Yeah, whatever. Just go start chewing on a hayseed, you idiot."
These conspiracy theorists do, however, have one thing in common with the "idiots" who trust centuries of scientific study proving the Earth is round, has four layers, and is shielded not by a clear dome, but by a layer of gases called the atmosphere. They recognize that children are the future, and in order for their belief system to last, it must be passed on to the next generation.
"They're extremely pliable," Sargent said of individuals under 18, and he knows social media is the best way to reach that demographic. "When it comes to information, we have the tools of the gods right now."
Steered added, "Young people used to … look at porn. Now they're looking at Flat Earth videos. Flat Earth's the new porn. It's porn for the mind."
According to Sargent, the Behind the Curve filmmakers were initially following them as curious observers, content with simply portraying the quirky Flat Earth community as a "harmless" but fascinating bunch of like-minded individuals. And then they filmed a 12-year-old boy grabbing the mic in the audience of a 2017 convention to ask, "How high do you think the dome is?"
Sargent didn't appear to answer the question, or perhaps it was edited out. Instead, viewers see the Flat Earth celebrity thank the boy for coming and his parents for bringing him, while the audience erupts in applause.
"This bothered them a lot," Sargent revealed during his conversation with Steere. "Because they mentioned it's different when kids start looking up to you as some kind of pseudo role model, pseudo-celebrity. Basically they're listening to you."
Indeed. Scientific American studied data collected from a recent YouGov survey, determining "only about 82.5 percent of millennials (as YouGov called 18–24-year-olds) agreed with 'I have always believed the world is round.'"
The authors analyzing the survey did offer some relief to anyone terrified by a statistic that should be far closer to 100 percent. "The spreadsheet data indicate they are not substantially more likely to agree that the Earth is flat," the Scientific American reported. "Indeed, firm [belief] in a flat Earth was rare, with less than a 2 percent acceptance rate in all age groups."
Sargent, on the other hand, is confident kids are rapidly being indoctrinated into the Flat Earth ideology.
"I'm telling you those numbers are way higher than the 18-24, but [surveyors] can't talk to them, and we already have. So what are you going to do? You got nothing. We're holding all the cards at this point."
He has a theory why, too. Sargent used The Secret Show to issue the following message to "anybody in science."
"As far as the kids go … better they are with us than with you. Because, look, you are telling them they're just this tiny little rock flying through space and their lives are worth nothing. We're telling them that their lives are worth everything. So what's more positive there?"
Even when issuing jarring statements like that one, Sargent delivers his misguided message with non-threatening civility — unlike InfoWars star Alex Jones, who literally screams his outrageous conspiracy theories at his viewers. As a result, Sargent is the more tolerable of the two personalities capitalizing on the fringe population tuning in to their respective shows. But make no mistake. Both are soldiers in the propaganda war being waged on the internet, and both are in it to win it.
So while Netflix subscribers are busy laughing at the eccentric cast of characters documented in Behind the Curve, the Flat Earthers will be busy spreading their gospel to anyone who will listen, and they've got all the tools required at their fingertips.
Mark Sargent may not be brightest scientific mind in America, but he's not dumb. Although he doesn't know how to scientifically prove the Earth is flat, he does understand the science of spreading misinformation.
"There are six billion smartphones, high-speed internet, [and] social networking. What did you think was going to happen with all of that?"