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Social Disease Illustration by Phil Jones.

Social Disease

The phrase “going viral” used to conjure images of sickness and death. Now, it describes the outbreak of ideas online—and our choice of words is more apt than we realize.

A virus knows no mercy. It exists for one purpose: to multiply, breaching the body’s defences and seizing control of the unsuspecting host’s cells. Their orders: build copies of the virus, whatever the cost to the tissue it’s occupied. Isolated in laboratories, percolating in the guts of gorillas, strains that could reduce humanity to a handful of blinded, crazed survivors lie in wait. And yet the phrase we’ve chosen to represent online success is “going viral.” Our curious diction raises a question: if biological viruses bring sickness, panic and mass death, what social ills result from viral ideas spreading on the internet?   

Most viral phenomena fade from view before we’re even able to assess their symptoms. You’ve probably half-forgotten the frenzy surrounding Kony 2012. Invisible Children’s half-hour web video aimed to bring the world’s attention to—and campaign for military action against—war criminal Joseph Kony, whose Lord’s Resistance Army conscripted child soldiers across central Africa. Early last year, Kony 2012 burst into the public consciousness and became the mostly rapidly shared video in internet history, inspiring both support and criticism.

But Kony 2012 was quickly eclipsed by its own ubiquity. Director Jason Russell was arrested for public nudity following a psychological breakdown brought on by the reaction to the video. On April 20—the day Russell had urged supporters to bury city streets in his campaign’s propaganda—the world awoke to blank walls. Instead, Kony 2012 left behind a different, accidental message: sharing viral videos may bring about some social good, but it could just as easily do nothing—or, as Invisible Children’s detractors argued, result in real harm.  

We’ve fallen, once again, for the myth that technology’s advance means social progress. Innovation helped deliver history’s most devastating pandemics: the Black Death, smallpox’s decimation of indigenous peoples and the Spanish flu each emerged on the heels of unprecedented increases in human contact. Now we face a new kind of disease. As the laborious efforts once required to transmit information—memorizing verse, copying prose, setting moveable type—are gradually reduced to the retweet, we’ve failed to anticipate the aftereffects.

Our positive spin on the term “viral” is a recent phenomenon. As late as 1992, science-fiction writers like Neal Stephenson still depicted viral replication darkly. “We are all susceptible to the pull of viral ideas,” he wrote in his novel Snow Crash, published that year. “Like mass hysteria. Or a tune that gets into your head that you keep humming all day until you spread it to someone else. Jokes. Urban legends. Crackpot religions. Marxism.” But by the mid-nineties, advocates of “viral marketing” aimed to turn the analogy around, emphasizing how such techniques could revolutionize advertising. As the internet economy transformed individuals into “brands” and made self-promotion a mode of survival, virality proved an attractive template.

Our newfound ability to share articles, political campaigns and creative works online meant that fame no longer seemed like a mysterious gift bestowed by media elites. Kony 2012 offered a paean to this potential; the video spends so much time praising the worth of online activism that Kony’s crimes feel like an afterthought. Social media has the power, the video insists, to “make Kony famous.” And fame means influence: politicians would heed the will of participants.

But in flattering the act of sharing, viral campaigns effectively co-opt it. A virus tricks the body into copying viral RNA rather than its own; savvy propagandists promote their agenda by making sharing feel like a powerful act of self-expression. That sharers could make a difference is, perversely, made to seem at least as important as what that difference actually is. Sharers equate facilitating a virus’ orders with their own voices; virality is confused with democracy.

As Evgeny Morozov demonstrates in his recent book The Net Delusion, repressive states have proven adept at using the tools of online activism to manipulate public opinion. Their efforts are increasingly sophisticated. Members of China’s 50 Cent Party—self-described “public opinion guides” paid by Beijing—mass-post pro-government comments on websites and feign elaborate online discussions that subtly promote the regime’s policies. In Azerbaijan, researchers suggest that pro-government factions use algorithms to manipulate trending hashtags on Twitter.

But the eroded line between virality and democracy doesn’t just make authoritarian states seem more legitimate—it can also tempt democratic ones to become less representative. Italy’s popular, web-based Five Star Movement would use internet caucusing to destroy traditional party politics and pioneer what its mastermind, Roberto Casaleggio, calls “a new, direct democracy that will see the elimination of all barriers between the citizen and the state.” Yet such “barriers” as representative legislatures or independent ministries exist to protect voters who lack the time or information to participate more fully in the democratic process.

Five Star’s shadowy internal governance shows what happens when these barriers disappear. Its inner circle rarely feels the need to share plans in detail, and makes decisions about its political candidates on the basis of poll results that the rank-and-file can’t verify. The party claims support from what Casaleggio calls “the warmth of the people,” and its charismatic leader Beppe Grillo, a comedian, serves as its soi-disant “loudspeaker.” Again, the illusion of empowerment through virality masks the reality of the virus’ control. Casaleggio has controversially compared the group’s following to Jesus’ (“his message, too, became a virus,” he smirked to the Guardian). But Five Star’s sketchy vision—in which Grillo is seen to express the people’s will more purely than a system of checks and balances—is more reminiscent of Mussolini’s.

Of course, constitutional democracy rested on fragile foundations long before we first went online. Yet viral phenomena may soon make even the state itself seem like a “barrier” to military action. Kickstriker, a satirical website parodying the crowd-funding platform Kickstarter, allows anyone to solicit donations for military interventions. But a real online campaign to deploy amateur “freedom fighters” to Syria raised over $15,000 before Kickstarter shut it down; the “fighters” planned to make a film, but their language implied they might join the war effort. Crowd-sourced conflicts may yet blow up.

And that’s just when the instigators of viral campaigns still control their creations. Even peaceful online efforts can devolve into lynch mobs. When journalist Xeni Jardin expressed annoyance with “tweetbombing”—being mass-messaged on Twitter by users encouraging her to join their cause—some critics called for her death. American gun-rights advocates recently did the same to the editor of the left-wing magazine Mother Jones. In Egypt, furor over the anti-Islam film The Innocence of Muslims escalated the persecution of its creator’s fellow Coptic Christians. As Kony 2012’s popularity climaxed, its most outspoken critic was threatened, and the film’s screening in Uganda triggered a riot in which someone actually died.

Aggrandizing sharers’ sense of importance is only one reason that viral success can come so swiftly. As media theorist Douglas Rushkoff has written, ideas are spread by hooks—attention-grabbing details that allow the virus to snare its host. Competition for our concern leaves us addicted to originality. Just as we grow immune to familiar illnesses, repetitive exposure to injustice inoculates us against its emotive power. Only a new mutation—something more audacious, amusing or extreme—can succeed in inspiring compulsive sharing.

Consider the catchphrases—“fire Big Bird,” “binders full of women”—that sidelined so many serious issues during the last US presidential debates. Or the movement against the persecution of Pussy Riot: the singular focus on the attention-grabbing Russian band buried discussion of Moscow’s systemic abuse of less telegenic dissidents, leading observers to lament the “Konyfication” of the campaign. Virality tugs our tattered attention between the sensational and the superficial, between the bloodiest war crimes and the most infinitesimal political gaffe.

Observing the trial of the Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt famously coined the term “the banality of evil” to describe the idea that prosaic actors could lie behind great crimes. When horrifying acts go viral, it’s often because they appear so outrageous or atrocious that we can’t help but share, like or click. It’s often harder to see—much less convince others to care about—the countless banal ways in which people are quietly, subtly exploited and repressed.

In acquiescing, instead, to the viral, we view the world from the virus’ perspective, thrilled by the success we helped create. Contagious with titillating disinformation, we cough in the face of every follower and friend. Curb your enthusiasm: virality can be as great an evil as the evils that go viral. The banality of restraint may prove our only cure.