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Logan Paul’s satirical flat Earth doc gets to the heart of YouTube’s recommendation issue

Logan Paul’s satirical flat Earth doc gets to the heart of YouTube’s recommendation issue


The real time effect of a recommendation algorithm at play

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Logan Paul’s 50-minute satirical documentary exploring flat earth conspiracy theories demonstrates how someone open to an idea can become indoctrinated into believing something that isn’t real. Paul’s video is entirely facetious, but the underlying parallels between his journey into flat earth conspiracy theories and the way conspiracies spread on YouTube isn’t.

The majority of Paul’s video takes place at the Flat Earth International Conference, a convention hosted by Robbie Davidson, a self-described “enclosed creationist,” who believes God created a flat earth. At the bequest of his best friend, Paul goes around from booth to booth, talking to theorists about their beliefs. He begins his tour of the convention floor mocking their theories, but by the end of the first day — and a conversation with a charismatic Davidson — finds himself questioning everything. By the very end of the documentary, after “falling in love” with a flat earth theorist and “coming out of the flat earth closet,” Paul admits that the conspiracy is the “stupidest thing” he’s ever heard.

Watching Paul absorb information is like seeing YouTube’s recommendation algorithm in real time. He starts out learning about flat earth theories as entertainment, but soon, he’s inundated with conspiratorial beliefs, with no experts in sight. Paul traveled to Colorado for the convention, but all of the information presented is easily found on YouTube. Davidson’s channel dedicated to promoting flat earth conspiracy videos has more than 130,000 subscribers, and it recommends other conspiracy theorists who were present at the convention.

YouTube has been accused of being a source of radicalization through spread of misinformation. The company has started to address the spread by instituting fact boxes and preventing some videos from appearing in search, but popular videos can still send people down a rabbit hole of conspiracies.

Part of the bigger issue

People on average spend approximately 280 minutes a week watching YouTube, according to a 2017 report published by AdWeek. That might not seem like much compared to watching Netflix or playing video games, but an typical YouTube video is around 10 minutes. If someone is spending approximately 40 minutes a day watching YouTube videos, that’s about four videos a day, or 28 videos a week. It’s a lot of information to take in during a very short period of time.

“Watching Paul absorb information is like seeing YouTube’s recommendation algorithm in real time.”

That’s especially true if people are using YouTube for conspiracy theories. A 2017 study conducted by Asheley Landrum at Texas Tech University surveyed 30 attendees of that year’s Flat Earth International Conference, and found that 29 people suggested YouTube videos changed their views. The study, reported by The Guardian, also noted that most of the study group previously watched conspiracy videos about “9/11, the Sandy Hook school shooting, and whether NASA really went to the moon,” before YouTube’s algorithm recommended flat earth videos.

The fact that most of the study participants were previously watching other conspiracy theory videos shouldn’t be ignored, according to Joseph Uscinski, a professor at the University of Miami and renowned conspiracy theory expert. Uscinski told The Verge that people who believe in flat earth conspiracy theories have to be predisposed to believing in “alternative facts.” Someone may sit through a flat earth conspiracy video out of curiosity, but they’re unlikely to disregard their previous beliefs, Uscinski said.

“How that disposition develops isn’t fully known, and we haven’t had the time to trace it,” Uscinski said, adding that proper research into conspiracy theories has only existed for about a decade. “I would liken it to something like partisanship or political ideology. They’re not the product of rational processes. They’re instead of product of our socialization.”

Most people are not seeking out conspiracy theory videos for the joy of it, Uscinski said. They have to be readily interested or at least open to the idea of an alternative way of thinking. Even before the internet, people were “getting all sorts of unbiased information from different sources,” he said.  

Still, Uscinski said that search engines like Google and platforms like YouTube make it easier for people to find information or stumble upon it. It’s imperative that experts are given authoritative placement on these pages for that reason. People who aren’t predisposed to believing in counter-theories aren’t likely to suddenly throw previous knowledge out just because they watch a video, but for those who might, having proper experts surface is a good start to fighting misinformation.

“Everybody has an expert, but not everyone is an actual expert.”

“You and I have to rely on other experts,” Uscinski said. “That’s what it comes down to ... are you willing to say: ‘There’s no way for me to know these things. I’m not an expert, and I’m going to rely on an accredited expert to tell me these things?’”

The issue on a platform like YouTube is that anyone and everyone can be presented as an expert.

A new genre of conspiracy  

Conspiracy theories are becoming increasingly easy for people to discover, especially when popular creators like Paul and Shane Dawson, who recently released a three hour conspiracy theory series on YouTube, bring more attention to topics under the guise of entertainment.

It’s similar to what happens on other sites, including Reddit, Facebook, and Twitter. Know Your Meme editor Matt Schimkowitz previously told The Verge that when flat earth memes and jokes are spread, it gives those people with predisposed dispositions the opportunity to delve further into a theory.

“It can attract people who are looking to believe in these kinds of things, looking for things to confirm what they believe — like the government’s out to get them, scientists are lying to us, that sort of deal,” Schimkowitz told The Verge in 2017. “What starts as an ironic thing eventually reaches people who are willing to go along with it. From there you have sort of full-blown conspiracy theories. It reaches a new level.”

Whereas one of Davidson or other conspiracy videos may reach a couple of hundred thousand people, Dawson’s conspiracy theories documentary has been viewed more than 60 million times. Although he notes that many of the theories in the video are just ideas, his claims may have led viewers to seek out additional information.

“We need to be better about labeling who’s a proper expert and who’s not.”

The same thing occurs with Paul’s documentary. Even though he’s using it as a piece of satirical entertainment, it does give a stage to conspiracy theorists. It’s a perfect example of the gray area that exists on YouTube right now; the company is trying to combat known conspiracy theorists, like InfoWars’ Paul Joseph Watson, but videos from more traditional YouTube entertainers like Dawson and Paul receive heavy promotion.

YouTube is rolling out some tools to help viewers distinguish between a conspiracy theory and fact. Information boxes, which pull from Wikipedia, will appear on videos about topics like anti-vaccination and 9/11 conspiracy theories. The Verge previously confirmed that YouTube does not have information boxes for flat earth theories, but the company is hoping to roll those out soon.

For now, Uscinski says it’s up to parents and teachers to help teach children — those most likely to watch Dawson and Paul — the type of experts they should be seeking out when learning about a subject. Misinformation exists both online and offline, according to Uscinski, and helping kids learn that YouTube’s recommendation algorithm isn’t an expert is a good first step in combating conspiracy theories laying down the foundation of knowledge. That also includes pointing out that neither Dawson or Paul are experts on these subjects.

“Everybody has an expert, but not everyone is an actual expert,” Uscinski said. “We need to be better about labeling who’s a proper expert and who’s not.”