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How a Google Maps Update Lead to the Promotion of Fringe Views

Google Maps got a small update on Thursday. A zoomed-out view now shows a globe instead of the old, less accurate, Mercator projection. They announced it in a tweet:

A few tech publications noticed, and wrote articles about it, treating it as the useful but ultimately relatively unimportant feature that it is. Mashable’s Zooming out on Google Maps now shows you a globe is a typical example.

Some people on Twitter found humour in the idea, making quips about this update offending flat Earth believers, a tiny group of kooks who believe (or pretend to believe, I don’t know) that Earth is flat and gravity doesn’t exist. It’s a belief that’s easily refuted and falls apart very quickly.

This gave ad-funded publishers their opportunity to get some attention money: a simple product update isn’t a story, but a manufactured controversy is. So publishers like Metro waded in with stories like Google Maps has made a big change that’s going to anger Flat Earthers. The story may have its tongue slightly in its cheek, but it reprints the views of the flat Earthers at length.

Text from the Metro article explaining flat-Earth views
Metro helpfully evangelise the views of flat-Earthers

In their story Sorry flat-Earthers, Google Maps now zooms out to a globe CNET even emailed a member of the Flat Earth Society for comment. New Zealand’s NewsHub went further by choosing the headline Google seems to wade into flat Earth conspiracy theory debate when, of course, there is no debate.

The result is that a manufactured controversy about a minor product update has given false equivalency to the fringe views of a small band of crackpots so everyone can get a few pennies in advertising revenue. This is the attention economy in action, and it’s rotten.


Also published on Medium.

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