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Do you remember the jokes people used to say about how everything you read on the internet is true? Well, there are some people out there who are starting to take that to heart. Asheley Landrum is an assistant professor of science and communication at Texas Tech University. Her primary focus in her research is how cultural values affect our understanding of science, most recently the flat Earth theory. Thanks to the internet and the introduction of Google, there has been a huge increase in the number of people who believe that the Earth is flat. Google searches for “flat Earth” have grown massively over the past five years and flat Earth conventions have started popping up all over the world.
According to Landrum and her research, YouTube may play a huge role when changing a person’s opinion. “There’s a lot of helpful information on YouTube but also a lot of misinformation,” Landrum stated. “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.” This is also one of the reasons why most of the new flat Earth believers are young adults or teens. Only a mere 66% of 18- to 24-year-olds have always believed that the Earth is round but that also means that 34% see it differently. Landrum interviewed 30 people who attended one flat Earth convention and found that all but one became believers after watching videos on YouTube.
However, she doesn’t explicitly blame YouTube for the rise in flat Earthers but it still has an effect. A few of the people interviewed also said that they watched the videos only to debunk them but ended up finding themselves won over by the material instead. One of the most popular flat Earth videos is called “200 proofs Earth is not a spinning ball” and is also the most effective in creating new flat Earthers. This is due to the fact that it offers arguments that appeal to different mindsets, from biblical literalists and conspiracy theorists to those of a more scientific mind. Landrum has said in interviews that “believing the Earth is flat in of itself is not necessarily harmful, but it comes packaged with distrust in institutions and authority more generally. We want people to be critical consumers of information they are given, but there is a balance to be had.”
There are others out there
Flat Earthers are not the only ones being affected by what is posted on the internet. Every person has at one point in their lives used WebMD to look up a combination of symptoms. After all, WebMD and its vast catalog of medical information help narrow down a cause of your strange symptoms and give you an answer or so you originally thought. For example, you could have swollen glands and are fatigued. However, you don’t have any other typical flu symptoms so that couldn’t possibly be it. So you jump on WebMD, a couple clicks later and you have officially diagnosed yourself with thyroid cancer. Now because of what you read on the website, you believe that you only have two months left to live. This happens every single day. People go online to look up symptoms instead of consulting a professional and end up scaring themselves into thinking that they’re dying.
It’s a phenomenon that’s been documented for more than a decade and it’s called cyberchondria, the phenomenon in which a person convinces themselves of having a disease they don’t actually have after reading about the symptoms online. New research suggests that certain people are more prone to cyberchondria than others especially if you don’t like uncertainty. Someone may look up symptoms to ease their anxiety but end up making things worse. Thomas Fergus, a Baylor University professor of psychology and neuroscience, believes that “the relationship between the frequency of searching for medical information on the internet and health anxiety grew increasingly stronger as intolerance of uncertainty (IU) increased. One tenable reason for this finding is that individuals with high IU experience heightened levels of anxiety when faced with multiple possibilities.” In cases like this, knowledge is anything but power.
There’s still hope for future generations especially for those people who live their entire lives online. Google has acknowledged that there’s more it could do to combat the spread of false information on YouTube and, as recently as January, outlined new plans designed to push back. WebMD as also included a byline that clearly states that the information they provide should not be taken to heart. They encourage people to consult a professional before jumping to any conclusions. WebMD is only a guide, not a diagnosis. The YouTube team said in a post that they’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 historical events like 9/11.”
However, they also stated that this change wasn’t going to happen overnight, it would be a gradual change. Landrum has also called on scientists to get involved in the fight against false information by using YouTube as a platform to communicate their own work. After all, according to Landrum, “we don’t want YouTube to be full of videos saying here are all these reasons the Earth is flat. We need other videos saying here’s why those reasons are not real and here’s a bunch of ways you can research it for yourself.” Do the research and find the facts for yourself. Stop trusting everything you read on the internet because not all of it is true.