Follow-Up: How Flat Earthers Nearly Derailed a Photographer's Space Book

By David Schonauer   Tuesday September 3, 2019

Don't underestimate the power of alternate facts:

Early in August, we spotlighted an ambitious project undertaken by British photographer Benedict Redrgrove, who set out nine years ago to document NASA’s most iconic objects and spaces, from moon rocks collected on Apollo missions and assembly rooms where spacecraft are constructed to a suit for spacewalks and the Space Shuttle Atlantis. The work was the fulfillment of a longing Redgrove had been stoking since he was a boy.

“I spent my whole childhood loving sci-fi, space, and rockets,” he told the British Journal of Photography. “This project originated from the enormous sense of awe and reverence that I feel towards these objects.”

Born near Reading, England, in May, 1969 — just two months before Apollo 11’s historic moon landing — Redgrove is a graphic designer and commercial photographer whose client list includes BMW, Audi, Aston Martin, British Airways. He spent his career obsessing over technology and innovation, noted BJP.

In launching a personal project on NASA, he faced a formidable challenge. It took five years of negotiating before the space agency would let him in the door. “Many of the 200 images he ended up making came from walking around the facilities and spotting objects through the glass of locked cabinets, such as the stamps that were used to label each astronaut’s belongings,” noted BJP.

Redgrove launched a Kickstarter campaign on July 20  – the anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing –  to create a book titled NASA: Past and Present Dreams of the Future.

And that, noted The New York Times recently, is when the photographer learned about the power that a highly engaged group of conspiracy theorists can wield. Redgrove needed to raise $189,277 in 30 days. To promote the Kickstarter campaign, he bought a series of inexpensive ads on Facebook and Instagram.

“We specified we didn’t want conspiracy theorists and lunar landing deniers and flat earthers,” he told The Times.


“About 24 hours after the ads were approved, he got a notification telling him the ad had been removed,” notes The Times. “He resubmitted it. It was accepted — and then removed again — 15 or 20 times, he said. The explanation given: He had run ‘misleading ads that resulted in high negative feedback.’”

Getting further explanation from Facebook proved difficult. So Redgrove began to read the comments under the ads, which he and colleagues captured in screenshots before they were removed.

“There were phrases such as ‘The original moon landing was faking’ and ‘It’s all a show,’ along with memes mocking space technology,” noted the Times. “Some comments were hard to gauge, with users insisting that the earth was flat but that they’d buy the book anyway.”

Redgrove told The Times that he doesn’t condemn flat earthers for the beliefs they choose to hold. But he did wonder how they came to have enough clout to derail his ad campaign.

Though it’s possible that flat earthers and conspiracy theorists flagged the ad, this was not why the ad came down, Facebook said. Under the company’s ad system, noted The Times, even if many people flag an ad, the account is not disabled. Instead, the particular ad is removed from a user’s feed.

“The issues that emerge when advertisers target political campaigns or misinformation at a specific group on Facebook have been well documented,” concluded The Times. “So, too, have the problems that arise when advertisers make Facebook users uncomfortable by knowing too much about them. The fact that social media recommendations sometimes encourage conspiracy theories and radicalization is also well known.”


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