BOB GARFIELD The black hole image may indeed be so profound as to alter humanity's relationship with the cosmos–but not all of humanity. In a world where everything is politicized there is nothing to empirical to be doubted. Like crowd size or mass murder or the solar system.
MALE CORRESPONDENT I'm going to zoom in on the earth in photoshop, and I'm going to bring a levels up. Oh why is there a square box around the earth's allegedly taken from the scientists on the moon in Apollo 17? If people wonder why I don't trust NASA. These guys are liars. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD That clip taken from a video called True World is one of thousands detailing the flat earth conspiracy theory. The belief that, somehow, for some reason NASA and other institutions have orchestrated a big lie of epic proportions.
MALE CORRESPONDENT I don't acknowledge that other the planets are planets. We don't live on a planet we live on a plane. What we see in the sky or just a little lights.
MALE CORRESPONDENT Try to compare it to the Truman Show and The Truman Show was just a giant Hollywood stage 20 miles wide. If you build a stage that was a thousand miles wide, how many people could you afford besides just Truman. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Once an utterly fringe belief, the flat Earth theory is now a fringe belief inflated by media exposure. Even the exposure from those saying how idiotic it is. For instance this news flash from Bill Nye the Science Guy.
BILL NYE Is the earth flat or round? It's round OK. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD More problematic though is the work of YouTube star Logan Paul who has racked up 19 million subscribers and millions of dollars contriving to generate clicks. Now he's taking on the flat earther in a mockumentary called "Flat Earth: To the Edge and Back." For which he pretended to be one of them. In order, he says, to satirize their beliefs.
LOGAN PAUL I'm not ashamed to say, my name is Logan Paul and I think I'm coming out of the Flat Earth closet. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD It's not only a journey into the obvious. It turns out to be pumping oxygen into the very conspiracy filter bubbles he purports to want to burst, which may be was the plan all along. Madison Malone Kircher has reported on Paul's tumultuous career for New York magazine and she joins us now. Madison welcome to the show.
MADISON MALONE KIRCHER Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD So tell me the story of this satirical documentary.
MADISON MALONE KIRCHER Sure. So it was shot a year ago at a major flat Earth convention in Denver. Logan Paul signs up to attend. The man running the convention notices Logan's name on the list.
MALE CORRESPONDENT When I looked at the name I said wait a minute I think I recognize this name. It seemed like someone was on a journey. He had been looking into this. He was open minded. He was willing to put his name out there and say, 'hey man I want to come, I want to learn.' [END CLIP]
MADISON MALONE KIRCHER And coordinates with Logan and gets him to give a keynote speech which is sort of the center of this documentary. The plot of it rotates around Logan's love life. He meets a woman at the conference who has a flat Earther.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT The other reason people like to think this round is because the shape [inaudible]. You see that it's straight.
LOGAN PAUL Oh, oh. [END CLIP]
MADISON MALONE KIRCHER And falls madly in love with her and their love couldn't possibly blossom if he also did not fully believe this.
MALE CORRESPONDENT He is smitten.
MALE CORRESPONDENT He's smitten as hell dude. He really is dude. [END CLIP]
MADISON MALONE KIRCHER By the end of the film he discovers that the friend who initially told him about flat Earth conspiracy theories no longer believes them.
LOGAN PAUL I'm going to kill you. [END CLIP]
MADISON MALONE KIRCHER They have a drag out brawl in a parking lot. It is totally ridiculous. It comes completely off the rails and one thing is totally clear, Logan Paul, not a flat Earther.
BOB GARFIELD OK. Now it's sort of a Sacha Baron Cohen-esque approach minus the genius. He infiltrates these people in order to ridicule them. Mainly for an audience of 19 million teenagers. This is where I gather the law of unintended consequences might kick in.
MADISON MALONE KIRCHER We got this documentary that normalizes this flat earth hoax to a very broad audience. You know those 18-19 million subscribers of his that are teenagers. Those are just the people who want to be updated every time that Paul puts a video. That doesn't account for the millions of other people out there who will now stumble across this mockumentary through YouTube's algorithm.
BOB GARFIELD Is Paul trading here on the very lunacy he purports to debunk. I mean was that his business plan?
MADISON MALONE KIRCHER Absolutely. Logan Paul does nothing with unintended consequences. His most infamous act to date was vlogging an apparent suicide victim he found hanging in a forest in Japan.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT Social Media Star Logan Paul apologized this week for posting a video to YouTube showing the body of an apparent suicide victim. [END CLIP]
MADISON MALONE KIRCHER And he made it sound as though that was was something he felt he just had to do because he stumbled across this video and he didn't think better of it. That's, you know, to my mind absolutely untrue. He knew what he was doing. He knew what that headline would mean for his clicks and he did it anyway. And that's exactly what we're seeing again with this flat Earth documentary.
BOB GARFIELD If I weren't already skeptical about his motives here he comes this week on his podcast--
LOGAN PAUL It's going to be good.
ALEX JONES I like it. Very good vibe here.
BOB GARFIELD Alex Jones.
LOGAN PAUL Alex Jones.
ALEX JONES Very nice. What--.
LOGAN PAUL Is that what you expected?
ALEX JONES I don't know what to expect. I mean I just know that you guys are super popular. Been hearing about you for years and I've seen--. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD He's got Alex Jones for two hours. Did Paul call him a liar? Did he call him a menace? Did he hold his feet to the fire? Was there anything about this that shed light on Alex Jones' Alex Jones-ness.
MADISON MALONE KIRCHER It's interesting because the first 15 minutes of this two hour video with Logan Paul and his two co-hosts and Alex Jones, it really does seem like they're going to put in a good faith effort to hold Alex Jones accountable, to ask him tough questions to try and have a logical conversation with him.
ALEX JONES And because we've been lied to about WMD, we have been lied to about so many things, people just get to where they have to question everything.
LOGAN PAUL I agree. Question everything but at what point are you questioning everything and not accepting fact. You've alluded to it in the past, especially with the Sandy Hook thing--
ALEX JONES Oh there's no doubt. [END CLIP]
MADISON MALONE KIRCHER Alex Jones says something about how the majority of people online were spewing the same sorts of hoaxes about the Sandy Hook shooting that he was and Logan Paul says something to the effect of you know I'm online just like you are. I don't think it was the majority of people Alex. I think it was just the loudest people. And in that moment it seems like, 'OK these guys did their homework.' They they knew what they were getting into. But it quickly devolves.
ALEX JONES The chemtrails the human animal hybrids they admit are going on, the fact that cancer rates are up 3000 plus percent, the fact that autism is up 30 plus thousand percent. The fact that all this real crap's going on man--[END CLIP]
MADISON MALONE KIRCHER Once they get onto the Sandy Hook topic Logan Paul basically says you know Alex I just want you to know for the for the rest of this piece going forward, I forgive you and I believe you deserve a second chance to speak your mind. And this is a man who has had chance after chance after chance platform after platform one by one removing him and still continued to peddle lies about dead first graders. This is not somebody who needs to be absolved in front of millions on the Internet.
BOB GARFIELD Which gets back to this question of social media whatever it intense as a spreader of poison. But, I guess we should observe that long before YouTube, the cable TV channels and premium services also did and have--and still do a land office business in shows about cults and conspiracy theories and other whack-a-doodle-ry. There is never been a lot of handwringing about that stuff making entertainment out of dangerous ideas. In focusing on the likes of Logan Paul and YouTube, am I guilty of the you kids get off of my lawn thinking? You know, just because it's a newfangled medium?
MADISON MALONE KIRCHER You are and you aren't. Right? When you think about, you know, Nightline special about a cult you might have watched sort of voraciously a decade ago–and I still might watch voraciously now frankly. You finish watching that cult special, you go to bed. You think about it. Maybe read another newspaper article about it. You watch a cult YouTube video, you know you're going to be served six more YouTube videos. You're going to find blogs you're going to find tweets. You're going to wind up on for 4chan threads. It just there's an unending trough from which you can feed if you're interested. And that's the shift we've seen.
BOB GARFIELD Now YouTube claims it's beginning to address this problem to demote conspiracy content in its recommendation algorithm. Can you see this actually happening?
MADISON MALONE KIRCHER Yes and no. So today I was really interested when I woke up, Logan Paul dropped this video last night. And this morning I woke up and I immediately checked the YouTube trending page. And I was surprised not to see it there. Given that we had two very contentious big social media players teaming up for this podcast. And obviously I can't speak to that on the record, but to my mind that's an indication that YouTube has decided we will not be promoting this. You know Logan Paul's viral videos they usually wind up on the trending page. But more broadly it's rolling out slowly and it's not completely effective yet. A recent BuzzFeed study found that if you watch a nonpartisan political video it takes maybe half a dozen clicks before you are headed off into complete extremist land based solely on what YouTube recommends you watch.
BOB GARFIELD Is this a problem that can be solved?
MADISON MALONE KIRCHER When we see places like YouTube making these big announcements that they're going to change and they're going to tweak their algorithms and they will no longer be recommending misinformation and content, they're not doing this out of the goodness of their heart. YouTube executives didn't wake up one morning and think, 'we've made enough money so I guess now we try and do the right thing.' Enough average people, watchers, viewers, people at home have have started to piece together the potential dangers. You know, obviously there are a lot of benefits to the spread of information on YouTube and the scope and the pace at which it happens, but people are waking up to the potential dangers of that. I think the recent vaccine scares we're seeing across the country are a great example of this. That is what's moving the needle for YouTube. It's becoming fiscally untenable for them not to make these changes.
BOB GARFIELD When there's money to be made by feeding people's worst impulses is the solution ever on the horizon?
MADISON MALONE KIRCHER I mean does the horizon even really exist? If I walk towards it, don't I just fall off or walk into a wall of ice?
BOB GARFIELD Haha.
MADISON MALONE KIRCHER That's what the flatterers think.
BOB GARFIELD Haha touché. But now you have to answer my question.
MADISON MALONE KIRCHER I fell off the face of the flat earth.
BOB GARFIELD Haha.
MADISON MALONE KIRCHER I'm falling.
BOB GARFIELD Haha.
MADISON MALONE KIRCHER I think it's just a 21st century version of the convergence of culture and capitalism we've seen forever.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
MADISON MALONE KIRCHER And I can only hope that people watching these videos at home are smart enough to ask the right questions and not questions about the shape of the planet.
BOB GARFIELD Madison thank you very much.
MADISON MALONE KIRCHER Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD Madison Malone Kircher is a reporter with New York Magazine.