Helping a friend who's apparently becoming a flat earther?
December 2, 2022 2:13 AM   Subscribe

How can I help talk to my friend (via email) who's been pulled down the conspiracy routes of the earth is flat, chem-trails, etc.?

I have a close friend (although physically she's in the UK), who over the last few months has been mostly quiet about the 'awakening' she's been having, but has been talking about all she's been learning (without actually saying what she's been learning about).

Keen to find out more (genuine interest), recently I asked her for some links to some of the items she's been finding inspirational, thinking it was more classic self-help motivational speakers, etc.

Her reply was tentative in tone, indicated some embarrassment about the content, but was keen to get my views and feedback on things that may have changed my mind after the 6 hour YouTube video she recommended. This link was apparently the video that inspired her down this path of 'content you won't find anywhere else', bringing up points that she'd go off and research further, watch other videos, google algorithms I'm sure did more, etc.

10 minutes in to this first video and I couldn't listen to anymore. Too many red flags, lots of manipulation methods used in the video, loads of conspiracy theories implied but not outright claimed (at least at the start).
Then looking up the 'about' page of the YouTuber, and they'd proclaimed themselves as a flat-earther amongst other titles.

I know my friend has been going through a lot of challenges over the few years in the UK (who hasn't with all that's been going on there). However she is in what seems to be a steady and good relationship. She's self-employed and her work is still successful a paying the bills, etc. her mother lives close by (she also said she's shared the video link to her partner and her mother). I imagine the various conspiracy routes do seem to be filling some sort of need or hole in her life. I know the world is not looking great right now to many people.

From what I can understand at this stage, she's been swayed into the conspiracy / flat earth / chem trail / etc. rabbit hole over the last few months, and has seemingly carried on down into all the other linked areas with other podcasts she's also sent me links about.

I know from my friend's tone they're cautious about sharing this direction they've been going down. I don't want my reply to put up a barrier between us, I do want to reach out and support her with whatever she may be going through that has lead her down this path. But I'm worried about getting cut off from her or saying something wrong which triggers a defensive closed stance and not further discussion.

Has anyone got recommendations on essentially supporting someone who's being pulled into a cult ethos like this?
posted by many-things to Religion & Philosophy (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I wonder if sharing the documentary Behind the Curve might help? It's available on UK Netflix.

The documentary is predominantly respectful (rather than gotcha-y) towards its subjects, shows the reality of their lives alongside their status as 'celebrities' in the flat earther community, and there's a sequence at the end where a group of flat earthers basically recreate the Bedford Level experiment with an outcome that clearly wasn't the one they were expecting.

If your friend is genuinely interested in a wide range of media representations of these topics, surely it can't hurt to consume some critical perspectives as well as pro-conspiracy ones.
posted by terretu at 3:25 AM on December 2, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Meet her where she is.

Maybe you can ask her - with genuine respect & interest & without prejudging her new interests - what she finds compelling in this material? Not as a sneer - not like “why the heck are you entertaining this nonsense??!” - because that would be alienating. But instead as an open-ended enquiry into where she is & what role this content is filling for her right now.

As an analogy - let’s imagine that she’s recently converted to a new religion, and you happen to be an atheist. Your own personal beliefs in that case might not get in the way of your genuine interest in your friend’s personal experiences that had led to her conversion.
posted by Puppy McSock at 4:39 AM on December 2, 2022 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I have family that is quite deep into this stuff so much so that it has affected being able to have a conversation with them about anything other than their newest shocking theory. It’s a shame because we were once so close and now their days are spent watching these video and digging deeper.

One thing that really bothers me is that these family members don’t do much beyond forward alarming emails and hours-long YouTube’s about the subject matter or loudly proclaim on Facebook some theory they are currently grasping onto. If this stuff is so emergent, then what steps are they taking to combat these atrocities? So, in the kindest gentlest way you can word it - slightly challenge your friend and ask her what she’s actually doing with this information. Does she sit on any boards to help combat the chem trails? Is she studying flat earth theories and is going to present her research to the higher ups? What is she actually doing with the info she’s getting? Not that you actually want to encourage her to do those things, but it is a good gauge on how in to it she is and her commitment level. And it might give her pause to realize there’s more to spending hours a day going down rabbit holes, if by her doing so actually does nothing to help the problem she’s worried about.
posted by Sassyfras at 6:59 AM on December 2, 2022

Meet her where she is.

Quoted for agreement. She's getting something out of the engagement with harmful materials; the most respectful way to persuade someone to disengage with any harmful behavior is to do the three step of "I get where you're coming from and I have those needs too", "Here is how I meet those needs", and only then "here are the harmful consequences of meeting those needs the way you currently are". If you tell someone to stop doing something that feels essential without giving them a replacement they trust will do the same job better it's gonna go south one way or another.
posted by FeralIntellectual at 8:11 AM on December 2, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: This is what I've always heard about dealing with cult-like organizations. I really do think these conspiracy theories are cults. They act like cults in every other way. So this is a summary of the advice I've read elsewhere on the internet. I'm likely going to present it in a way that makes me sound like an authority, but I want to say up front I'm not. There may be others here with real expertise, not armchair expertise, and their guidance would supersede mine.

-Before you do anything else, accept that you will not be able to make her leave the cult. She must do that on her own. You can and should point out your concerns about the material and the flaws in its reasoning. But once you start pushing her directly to change her mind, she will begin to see you as The Enemy.

-That's because the material she's watching is deliberately designed to isolate her from you by treating you, and any nonbelievers, as The Enemy. The more she's isolated from people who don't believe in the conspiracy, the deeper she will get into the conspiracy world.

-So: show her you're not the enemy. Be her friend. Show an active interest in spending time with her. If she starts talking about the conspiracy theories, be noncommittal but validate anything you hear emotionally—"wow, that sounds really scary" or "I'm happy for you", etc., but try also to change the subject. Give her unassailable proof that they're wrong and you aren't out to get her. That's another tool in your toolbox against the indoctrination and will hopefully get her to start questioning.
posted by capricorn at 11:11 AM on December 2, 2022 [4 favorites]

Best answer: You may want to listen to the Maintenance Phase podcast episode on the Wellness to QAnon Pipeline -- it's a pretty good podcast by any measure!

Guest Mike Rothschild's advice (starting at about 31:00) is similar to capricorn's above, and is largely around "stepping in early," and letting people know you are there and they are supported; largely just being there and not picking at these beliefs, a bedrock of support so when they eventually, hopefully start questioning these things they've been pulled into -- because they are ultimately incoherent -- you're a source of reliable, non-judgmental support that can nudge them in a better direction, but without making them feel they're being mocked or attacked, which can drive them further in.
posted by Shepherd at 1:17 PM on December 2, 2022

i got a lot out of the flat earthers history hook from kelly weill, adapted into article form here.
posted by wowenthusiast at 8:06 PM on December 2, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Read the book Escaping the Rabbit Hole, by Mick West. He has done a ton of work engaging with flat-earthers and other conspiracy theorists, and has good advice about what works and what doesn't. Here is a previous comment that has a bit of a summary, but I highly recommend reading it.

Here is a video by the author, if you'd prefer that format — I haven't watched it, but I presume it should be good.
posted by wesleyac at 12:12 AM on December 3, 2022

I'm not sure if this will help your friend if they're already down the pipeline, but I found In Search Of A Flat Earth to be an incredibly insightful overview of the Flat Earth movement and where it comes from. At the very least I'd expect you'll find it interesting and may help you relate to why your friend is buying into these ideas.
posted by kdar at 10:49 AM on December 3, 2022 [1 favorite]

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