When Having Friends Is More Alluring Than Being Right

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 7.236% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

“There’s this flat-earther documentary called BEHIND THE CURVE,” my wife said. “We have to watch it!”

Of course we did. My wife will occasionally get into huge debates with flat-earthers on Facebook, dutifully reporting back on all the idiocy she dug up that day.

Now, I didn’t care much about flat-earthers, but I care very much about the amusement of watching my adorable wife get worked up about these dippy-doodles, so… we watched.

Except the flat-earthers weren’t dippy-doodles.

They were just lonely.

Which is not to say that each of them didn’t believe in the flat earth – oh, they did – but most of the people interviewed had a similar path to getting so deep into flat eartherism that they spent their own money to fly out to flat earth conventions:

1) They sorta believed that the earth was flat.

2) They told their friends, who either blew them off or mocked them or both.

3) They found a group of flat-earthers online, who were very welcoming and happy to find a fellow flat-earther.

4) Slowly, these people abandoned their old friends and converted to the new folks, who’d never tell them they were wrong about the flat-earth. Which had the side effect of making their flat-earth beliefs the most prominent part of their personality.

5) Eventually, the rejection becomes the proof that they’re on the road to truth, and no amount of evidence will convince them because this is no longer about logic – it’s about using their own logic to build a shield to protect them from rejection.

I wound up admiring the flat-earthers – some were funny, some were smart aside from the flat-earth stuff, some were compassionate. But the most telling part was at the end, when they interviewed one of the most devoted flat-earthers and asked him (I’m paraphrasing):

“What if you got irrefutable proof that the Earth was round? You’d lose all your friends. Could you walk away from this culture you helped create?”

And to his credit, he answered honestly:

“No. No, I don’t think I could.”

At which point I flung up my hands and cried, “What do you do?”

Because at this point, there’s a whole community which is united by one common principle: We didn’t like being told we were wrong, so we found somewhere that told us that we were right.

How do you fight that? Either you take these people with their whackadoodle ideas and go, “You know, you have a point, the earth is shaped like a kitten” – at which point you give acceptability to those answers – or you tell them they are factually wrong, at which point they’ll be so stung by the rejection that they’re vulnerable to being picked up by communities that embrace these wrongheaded opinions.

And if it was just flat-earthers, I’d say fine, it’s harmless. But you’ve got anti-vaxxers and Men’s Rights Advocates and anti-global warming folks and TERFs and incels out there, all fueled by one central pivot point of humanity – namely, that it’s lonely being wrong.

Except the internet has made wrong people folks to be courted. In fact, the more wrong people you can get on your side, the less you’ll be lonely. And the only cost to be a part of these groups is that you can never question the beliefs at the core of it, because that wrongness is what binds you, and any evidence that contradicts that wrongness must be either discarded, attacked, or humiliated.

It’s not a good look.

But to quote Billy Joel, it’s better than drinking alone.

And sometimes, that welcoming Internet has been a lifeline to people – I mean, hell, folks with all sorts of kinks can get together on FetLife, gays and trans folks can congregate to see that they’re not a freakish as their families would have them believe. And though there’s always more human messiness in the world of science than most science advocates would care to acknowledge, the truth is that most scientists are happy to be proven wrong by a replicable, verifiable study – they’re seeking the truth, not the hypothesis.

But I think of that flat-earther – charming, witty, funny – and how the Internet guided him into a place where he became a minor celebrity among the flat-earthers, taking a nameless dude from nowhere and elevating him to the point where Netflix is making a documentary about him and his buddies.

The Internet creates communities.

It does not care whether those communities’ beliefs have any relation to the truth.

And the scary part is that in practice, the Internet may be more fertile in creating communities that oppose the truth – because the folks who genuinely believe that, say, manure is good fertilizer for a garden or that some brands of 3D printers clog less than others have little need to defend themselves.

But the people who believe bullshit? They need other people who believe bullshit to help hold them together. And as such, they’re a little friendlier, a little more willing to outreach, a little more desperate for new buddies.

Because as long as they have someone to back them up, they’re not a crank – they’re a part of a grand rebellion, peeling back the layers The Man has laid down to uncover the pulsing, vital truth.

And what’s more life-affirming than that?

There’s been discussions about how physical community used to give people a sense of meaning – yes, those churches and Elks clubs may have been biased, but they helped you feel like you were actually a part of a larger whole. Which is something people have searched for throughout history.

I think, perhaps, by inventing the Internet, we’ve created a medium that leverages our sense of community with no outside forces to counteract that. Normally, in a town with 100,000 members, you could see that you were the only one who believed that balloons were the breath of the antiChrist and go, “Huh, I may be right, but… I’m gonna have to convince a lot of people face to face.”

These days? Your community is a click away, that sweet sweet justification a continual flow, and if you never step outside of your house you’ll never meet anyone face to face who’ll tell you you’re wrong. It’s just a bunch of faceless people, easily dehumanized. Whereas your friends, who are also words, speak to your heart.

How do you fight that? And here is where I wish I had an answer, but man, whatever the solution is, it won’t be simple. Ban them? They go elsewhere and feel like this is their personal diaspora. Throw facts at them? Their whole community makes them impervious to facts. Abandon them? They never needed you.

I don’t know how you fight it. But it’s there. And the real solution is to teach people that maybe not everything that makes you feel good IS good for you, but we’ve been trying to teach folk that forever that that trick never works, Rocky.

But there’s a community that believes the earth is flat. They’re friends because of that fact. Dissolve the fact, their friendships are lessened.

Would you give up your best friends in search of the truth? Speaking frankly, few people have. And I think that’s why it’s gonna get a lot worse before it gets better.


  1. Anonymous Alex
    Jul 29, 2019

    You make me sad.

    Also, am I the only person on the planet who doesn’t feel this horrendous yearning to be “part of something bigger”? I should find out if there are others like me, and start a little community . . . .


    • Paul N
      Jul 29, 2019

      May I join?

      • Anonymous Alex
        Jul 30, 2019

        Let me think about it. I myself don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member . . . .


    • Raven Black
      Aug 1, 2019

      Similar but opposite but same consequence as the Groucho line, I wouldn’t want to be part of a club that would accept anyone else as a member.

      Or at least not for its own sake, I wouldn’t mind like a pizza club or a board-game-playing club where attending gets me doing something I like to do.

      • Anonymous Alex
        Aug 2, 2019

        Sure, you say that now. Everyone thinks pizza club sounds like a good idea, until they become yet another casualty of the thick crust/thin crust wars.


  2. Jens Freund
    Oct 31, 2021

    Great article! I learned a lot.
    What if, a big part of them just want to be part of a social group that accepts them and does not treat them bad? This is not the same thing than being part of something bigger. This means the more you have been rejected by your social environment, the bigger is the probability that only in a weird team you get this team feeling (without the slightest rejection).
    How can we improve that? Maybe we could start by another approach to unemployment: Who in a non-anonymous society would accept that a member of a group cannot work and participate even though he/she would like to? That is obviously non-sense (or not optimal in economic terms for a society, at least if we would have the right KPIs). Future generations will look at us as “barbaric times”, the same way as we are looking back to times where women where not allowed to work without permission of their husband — that was less than 60 years ago in Germany.
    However, for the “anti-vaxxers” your pattern is only a smaller part of the group (but maybe the radical core). For covid19, there are many free-lancers and small entrepreneurs, who do not give much about what others tell at all (that’s starting point of the issue 🙂 ), they are not seeking a team or being part of something bigger. They are not looking for friends.

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