YouTube’s Plot to Silence Conspiracy Theories

Mark Sargent saw instantly that his situation had changed for the worse. A voluble, white-haired 52-year-old, Sargent is a flat-earth evangelist who lives on Whidbey Island in Washington state and drives a Chrysler with the vanity plate “ITSFLAT.” But he's well known around the globe, at least among those who don't believe they are living on one. That's thanks to YouTube, which was the on-ramp both to his flat-earth ideas and to his subsequent international stardom.

Formerly a tech-support guy and competitive virtual pinball player, Sargent had long been intrigued by conspiracy theories, ranging from UFOs to Bigfoot to Elvis' immortality. He believed some (Bigfoot) and doubted others (“Is Elvis still alive? Probably not. He died on the toilet with a whole bunch of drugs in his system”). Then, in 2014, he stumbled upon his first flat-earth video on YouTube.

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He couldn't stop thinking about it. In February 2015 he began uploading his own musings, in a series called “Flat Earth Clues.” As he has reiterated in a sprawling corpus of more than 1,600 videos, our planet is not a ball floating in space; it's a flat, Truman Show-like terrarium. Scientists who insist otherwise are wrong, NASA is outright lying, and the government dares not level with you, because then it would have to admit that a higher power (aliens? God? Sargent's not sure about this part) built our terrarium world.

Sargent's videos are intentionally lo-fi affairs. There's often a slide show that might include images of Copernicus (deluded), astronauts in space (faked), or Antarctica (made off-limits by a cabal of governments to hide Earth's edge), which appear onscreen as he speaks in a chill, avuncular voice-over.

Sargent's top YouTube video received nearly 1.2 million views, and he has amassed 89,200 followers—hardly epic by modern influencer standards but solid enough to earn a living from the preroll ads, as well as paid speaking and conference gigs.

Crucial to his success, he says, was YouTube's recommendation system, the feature that promotes videos for you to watch on the homepage or in the “Up Next” column to the right of whatever you're watching. “We were recommended constantly,” he tells me. YouTube's algorithms, he says, figured out that “people getting into flat earth apparently go down this rabbit hole, and so we're just gonna keep recommending.”

Scholars who study conspiracy theories were realizing the same thing. YouTube was a gateway drug. One academic who interviewed attendees of a flat-earth convention found that, almost to a person, they'd discovered the subculture via YouTube recommendations. And while one might shrug at this as marginal weirdness—They think the Earth is flat, who cares? Enjoy the crazy, folks—the scholarly literature finds that conspiratorial thinking often colonizes the mind. Start with flat earth, and you may soon believe Sandy Hook was a false-flag operation or that vaccines cause autism or that Q's warnings about Democrat pedophiles are a serious matter. Once you convince yourself that well-documented facts about the solar system are a fraud, why believe well-documented facts about anything? Maybe the most trustworthy people are the outsiders, those who dare to challenge the conventions and who—as Sargent understood—would be far less powerful without YouTube's algorithms amplifying them.

For four years, Sargent's flat-earth videos got a steady stream of traffic from YouTube's algorithms. Then, in January 2019, the flow of new viewers suddenly slowed to a trickle. His videos weren't being recommended anywhere near as often. When he spoke to his flat-earth peers online, they all said the same thing. New folks weren't clicking. What's more, Sargent discovered, someone—or something—was watching his lectures and making new decisions: The YouTube algorithm that had previously recommended other conspiracies was now more often pushing mainstream videos posted by CBS, ABC, or Jimmy Kimmel Live, including ones that debunked or mocked conspiracist ideas. YouTube wasn't deleting Sargent's content, but it was no longer boosting it. And when attention is currency, that's nearly the same thing.