Book Reviews Perceptions Magazine, November 2023
Off The Edge:
Flat Earthers, Conspiracy Culture, and
Why People Will Believe Anything
by Kelly Weill
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
P.O. Box 2225
Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27515-2225
a division of Workman Publishing,
225 Varick Street,
New York, NY 10014
2022, 256 pages,
Reviewed by Brent Raynes
This book's author, Kelly Weill, a journalist with the Daily Beast, a news website where she reports on extremist movements and conspiracy theories and has become a leading media voice for ABC's Nightline, CNN, Al Jazeera, and various other news outlets. She has attended conferences and gotten to know the many men and women who have become followers of such fringe movements as the Flat Earth, sharing how she had befriended a prominent figure in that movement named Mike Hughes - a man who was determined to prove the earth was flat by jettisoning himself up into the stratosphere in a homebuilt rocket using spare rocket parts.
Weill was in touch with him since meeting him at a conference in 2018 and had lost count of the number of times Hughes had run into problems, running from wind, parachutes, or spare rocket parts he'd purchased from Craigslist for $325. They would text back and forth. She described him as an offbeat character, but very likeable. She suspected that at some subconscious level he surely didn't really believe the earth was flat, yet in February 2020 he crashed and lost his life, probably as a result of secondhand parachutes that he had complained previously to Weill about. The author explains how conspiracy theories are very common and are held by a whole population of people who are seldom much different or any dumber than the rest of us. She confesses how she herself can sound pretty militant over her unproven belief that Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was assisted in his horrific act by uncharged members of the white power movement. "Given an hour and a strong drink, I will talk your ear off about this, possibly drawing maps and diagrams on the nearest surface," she wrote. "My belief probably means I can be classified as a conspiracy theorist." And furthermore, Weill admits that the world of today now looks even more different than when she began working on this book and not just because she has invested much time hanging out with people who believe the earth is flat and embrace various other conspiracy beliefs, but because of the widespread civil unrest that has erupted across our nation in recent years, a contentious presidential election, and the tragic pandemic that helped to seed much suspicion in the workings of our own government and its leaders.
The conspiratorial movement has been helped along by Facebook and YouTube algorithms, and in addition to Flat Earthers we have anti-vaxxers, the rise of QAnon followers, antisemitic propaganda, and various other forms of extremist movements that can have harmful consequences if not questioned and challenged.