The Netflix Documentary Behind the Curve examines the power of community and the role online interaction plays in bolstering shared beliefs.
If there's anything widely accessible Internet has taught me it's that it is a place for anyone and everyone. Before the dawn of the Internet if you had a weird hobby or strange belief you may have kept it under your hat, but now you are only ever a few clicks away from your fellow airport carpet enthusiast or shape shifting lizard theorist .
Behind the Curve was one of the most enjoyable documentaries I watched in 2019. It centres around several members of the Flat Earth Movement - a conspiracy theory group which contradicts that our planet is a globe and that all of the evidence which supports this is nothing more than an elaborate hoax.
Finding your Tribe when you Don’t Fit in
This particular conspiracy theory community are prolific in terms of content creation including numerous YouTube channels, podcasts, songs and merchandise and now an annual international conference. All of this content serves to legitimise the conspiracy theories which underpin the groups foundations. Psychologist Kenneth Gergen (2008) argues that online communications create 'monadic clusters' where individuals feed the group mentality and reaffirm the narrow views of the given community.
One of the things that struck me in the film were the claims made by community members which sought to set themselves apart as special or misunderstood and that they were always looking for others who were different:
"My entire life I've kinda' felt separate, like nothing was quite right."
"I never really fit in."
"We are actually very special and we have started to realise there is a purpose to our life."
"We are changing the world... we are making history." -Voices from the Behind the Curve Documentary
The community has allowed these individuals to find a place of acceptance with no judgement and this has perhaps led them to absorb their affiliation to 'flat earth' as part of their identity. Some have even found a kind of quasi-celebrity or leader status such as Mark Sargent which much of the film focuses on. The 'Us vs Them' mentality allows members to feel like the protagonists in a struggle against what they see as a worldwide cover up. This networked collectivism is one which Nancy Baym, author of Personal Connections in the Digital Age (2010) argues bolsters a shared and yet simultaneously distributed group identity. The information shared such as Mark Sargent's YouTube series functions as a kind of 'sub-cultural capital' (Baym, 2010) which strengthens his status within the group but also as a face or reference point for the community as whole to the outside world.
Collective Beliefs and Individual Identities
In Behind the Curve, psychologist Dr. Per Espen Stoknes highlights how assimilating with a group makes those collective beliefs a part of your identity. However, once you are in, if you begin to experience doubts about the community beliefs it can be daunting to take a step back and go against the grain. If you do, how do you define yourself?
"Say you lose faith in this thing. What then happens to the personal relationships? What's the benefit of doing that? Will the mainstream people welcome [you] back? No. Suddenly you'd be doubly isolated.It becomes a question of identity - Who am I in this world? Well, I can define myself through this struggle." Dr. Per Espen Stoknes in Behind the Curve
The film provides examples of individuals who have given up aspects of their lives in solidarity with the Flat Earth community:
"I've shared it with... two guys who I was dating who didn't want to date me anymore after I told them about my belief in the Flat Earth."
"I just finalised the divorce. I no longer speak to my parents, my brother, or anybody else... other than people who are interested in doing truth research."
- Voices from the Behind the Curve Documentary
This provides a sobering look at how collective identity can engulf someones entire life and define them as a person. Aspects of the film made me think that this community- whilst not ruled by one charismatic leader or built on a set of rules to live daily life by- functions in many ways as a cult would. Steeping everyday life in Flat Earth group media, evangelising to strangers, limiting their contact to only those in the group and cutting out non-believers all serve as examples of a kind of cult mentality similar to that explored in other documentaries about religious groups or new age movements.
Overall, Behind the Curve reinforces the flourishing effect that the Internet has had on sub-culture. No matter how strange your belief you can find others just like you. Like many online issues this is a double edged sword. On the one hand, support and empathy are present where there once may have been only ridicule. On the other hand, groups such as Flat Earth seek to only reinforce a certain belief system which is closed and isolated from the outside world. Any curiosity which does not conform to the group mentality is quashed and written off as 'brainwashed' by the government/the system/ the mainstream. Identification with a group can be supportive and helpful and give purpose, but you might just lose a sense of who you are as an individual.
NOTE: This article was originally published by the author on a former privately owned webpage and has since been reposted on Media Society Culture with edits.
Baym, N. (2010) Personal Connections in the Digital Age, Cambridge: Polity Press
Gergen, K. J. (2008). Mobile communication and the transformation of the democratic process. In J. Katz (Ed.), Handbook of mobile communication studies, pp. 297–310. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.