The phrase “random act of journalism,” first appearing in the early 2000s, described the willingness of bloggers to report news. Mass coverage of big and small events by ordinary people was, as the media analyst Mathew Ingram put it, “what happens when journalism is everywhere.” The Internet emancipated authorship, and people started to share what they witnessed or thought, looking to gain a response and recognition. Such “citizen journalism” deprived the professional media of its monopoly over news coverage, enabling alternative agenda-setting and causing what analyst Martin Gurri calls the “crisis of authority” that spurred a wave of global unrest. But reporting seems an insufficient description of this kind of mass online activity. After all, people don’t just report on events that they have witnessed. They also select, process, emphasize, illustrate, write headlines, and decide how to present information. Basically, they do the job of an editor.
The Internet combines and reinforces their editorial efforts. As a result, Internet users perform a collective version of the editorial work that once took place in the back offices of newsrooms. If professional editors serve as gatekeepers, determining the importance of various stories before publication, the Internet opens the gates, deciding on the significance of content after it’s published. Hence, it’s not just a collective editor—it’s what I call the Viral Editor. Anyone can post anything, including rubbish. But people then vote with their likes, reposts, and comments, thereby distributing content according to what they find interesting. The Viral Editor does not just provide the selection, framing, and distribution of content; it is also a nonstop referendum that decides what is significant.
The Viral Editor appears to offer numerous advantages over traditional professional media. First, it can marshal evidence from anywhere. News organizations must dispatch reporters to cover a faraway protest, but people with cell phones will already be there, on the ground. Second, it possesses more expertise than any single newsroom ever could. It recruits all the experts and witnesses that society possesses, and they all compete for recognition by sharing their knowledge. Third, the Viral Editor can deliver the news precisely to whom it may concern. Our news feed is made by our friends—people with similar tastes, interests, views, and socioeconomic statuses. They—we—select, comment, and deliver to one another information with the highest possible relevance. Finally, the fact-checking capacity of the Viral Editor exceeds that of any professional agency. If a lie is important, it will spread until it reaches those who can debunk it, and they will do so for the sake of response and recognition. If a lie is not important, it will not be distributed.
With these attributes, the Viral Editor should improve conversation, content, and even participants themselves. Regardless of all the nonsense and filth posted online, people generally want to put their better selves forward. The mechanism should be tuned to improve everything it touches.
Alas, that’s not how things have unfolded. That analysis of the Viral Editor may have seemed plausible in an era of Internet romanticism, when citizen journalism still dominated digital engagement. But with the rise of social-media platforms came a different and automated mechanism for determining relevance: algorithms.
The Viral Editor, a human-based mechanism of relevance, structured the blogosphere of the 2000s. Blogs followed the old rules of literature and journalism. Essentially the last texts of the Gutenberg era, many blog posts ran a few hundred words, requiring creative effort and logical organization on the part of the writer. They were also distributed by humans. Users themselves shared the links to blog posts they liked. Other users could see an important blog post only if they followed the blog or if their friends delivered it to them. Reading a post was always and everywhere a human decision, made with no algorithmic involvement. Comments and hyperlinks rendered certain blog posts popular and therefore of significance.
If the number of journalists in the history of the news media can be estimated roughly at 1 million, the blogosphere era saw tens of millions of people enter the fray. Unlike journalists, bloggers typically were not institutionally affiliated and were not burdened by editorial policies or restrained by media owners and advertisers. By 2014, Tumblr was hosting 172 million blogs, and Wordpress another 75 million. But the ecosystem had already changed. If the 2000s were the decade of the blogosphere, the 2010s were the decade of social media. The blogosphere continued to exist, but bloggers started using social-media platforms for distributing their blog content. In 2010, according to a survey by Technorati, 78 percent of bloggers used Twitter and 87 percent used Facebook.
The blogosphere was run by humans; social media are run by algorithms. The transition from human to algorithmic mechanisms of relevance unfolded in an instant. And it coincided with an explosion in authorship: while the number of bloggers reached a few hundred million, the number of social-media users has now hit 4.7 billion—more than half of humankind.
This transition changed the nature of digital engagement. The personal connection that users feel with their social-media contacts still matters. But as tech companies adapt to new economic realities and compete for scarce attention, algorithms increasingly determine the content to which a user is exposed. TikTok, for instance, learns with amazing efficiency what content we might like from our actions or inactions. The short-form videos that the platform hosts could come from friends, strangers, or advertisers, but it is the algorithms that decide what users “want” to see.
Algorithms seek engagement to collect our personal data and to get us to spend more time on the platform. While the Viral Editor cannot be interfered with, algorithms, the intellectual property of corporations, can be artificially tuned. They have repurposed personal content customization from content delivery to advertising delivery. “The seemingly God-like abilities offered by the net were productized,” wrote media theorist Douglas Rushkoff in 2019. “The Internet went from town hall to shopping mall.” Indeed, just a decade after the Viral Editor seized the agenda-setting monopoly from the professional media, it lost it to the algorithms. In the process, something terrible happened to the Viral Editor itself. It morphed into, to use Gurri’s suggestion, the “Viral Inquisitor.”
The shift from the blogosphere to social media transformed the way people exchange information online. The transition was not only from Blogger and LiveJournal to Facebook and Twitter but also from the written word to digital speech.
At the most fundamental level, blogs are written text. A blog post is a personal diary entry, and writing one takes time. As the Soviet paleoanthropologist Boris Porshnev once noted, thought and speech require the inhibition of natural reflexes. The need to formulate thoughts and sentences mediates our gut reactions. This makes humans slowpokes compared with animals, but it also facilitates deliberation and cooperation, conferring evolutionary benefits. Writing is the highest form of this reaction delay: a literate culture may delay its response to events for days, months, or years, but the deliberation and cooperation that literacy engenders allowed humans as a species to thrive and transform the planet.
Social media have reversed this process. Seeking to extract more of their users’ time and engagement, social-media platforms have made digital reactions almost as instantaneous as physiological reflexes. The Internet completed the transfer of our reactions into virtual space, reducing the transaction costs for sharing them with others. (See “The Medium Is the Menace,” Winter 2022.)
Global cooperation of humans was an effect of literacy because literacy allowed us to communicate over time and space. But shouldn’t social media make society even more cooperative? After all, people can now get more responses to one another’s thoughts than ever before. But the nature of cooperation has changed dramatically. Lacking the deliberative element that writing requires, social-media posts often feature nothing but gut, emotive reactions.
The response of others is a currency needed to gain and maintain social status. Social media automatized response through the buttons of “like” and “share” and thus drastically reduced the effort needed to gain or give a response. The exchange of responses accelerated and made it possible to get a response with almost no content production (by posting a selfie, say). Increasingly, what the Viral Editor now selects and delivers to users is not content but other users.
The Internet completely removed the time-space restrictions on personal conversation. In physical reality, only those physically present could count on the reaction of their interlocutors. Communication in larger groups required mediation, procedures, or broadcasting. Only mediated communication could overcome the time-space restrictions of personal gathering and enable cooperation in bigger numbers. Social media dismiss these limitations of physical presence. When posting something online, a user can hope for a response from an unlimited number of others. However, all others, and all at once, want the same from this single user.
Media theorist Marshall McLuhan held that mechanical technologies extended each person’s reach to the external environment, thus “exploding” the world for humans. Yet the advent of electricity, McLuhan suggested, “contracted” the world for everyone in a massive “implosion.” Though we can reach out to other people, other people can also reach out to us. Every social-media user is bombarded by everyone else’s existential demands, thoroughly customized by algorithms to grab our attention. Friends, friends of friends, and strangers fill our newsfeed with their worldviews and expect immediate recognition of their rightness in exchange.
Digital media not only compressed the time and space that once separated people but also enabled a new language: digital speech, which has traits of both oral and written communication. Like oral speech, it permits the instant exchange of replies; like writing, it leaves behind a record and can be transmitted in time and space. These features mean that people’s spontaneous and mostly emotive efforts to establish their social statuses in conversation are no longer transient. The relations of millions of people are accumulated, spread, and displayed to everyone else.
This new type of conversation, digital orality, has benefits. It allows socialization at an unprecedented pace and scale. The Viral Editor still delivers the most relevant information to everyone. But the ease of exchanging digital speech has shifted the focus of mass communication from reflections to reflexes, from substance to attitude. Social media demand that everyone relate to others, to their ideas, to their troubles and achievements—indeed, to their very existence.
Social media increasingly serve not to facilitate the simple exchange of written information but to sort out everyone’s attitude toward the most pressing issues of the day. The wrong response to someone’s hard-fought truth is punished by reciprocal aggression and various forms of ostracism. If the Viral Editor required from everyone participation in content selection, the Viral Inquisitor demands from everyone solidarity with the most widely held views of others. Politicization and polarization are embedded in the process.
The Viral Inquisitor is a relentless tormentor. British anthropologist Robin Dunbar famously hypothesized that the human brain can maintain stable social relationships with 120 to 150 individuals, the size of a tribal group or a village. Social media override Dunbar’s number, burdening users with connections more numerous than what we can handle. Excessive social connections make people feel impelled to know hundreds of strangers, whose digital existence intrudes upon their personal space, their screens.
Through the same mechanisms that the Viral Editor used to customize content for everyone, the Viral Inquisitor gathers identity signals of others and delivers them precisely to those most likely to react. You may choose not to react, but when you eventually or accidentally react with a click, or even a longer pause in scrolling down, you fall into a trap of further customization and better-customized identity signals. Sophisticated algorithms ensure that the Viral Inquisitor notes your inclinations and preferences. The user can’t escape from being exposed to the identity signals of others and their persisting demands for affirmation. If you react wrongly, you are guilty.
This makes the Viral Inquisitor a much more effective warden than the notorious Big Brother. The sins and thoughtcrimes of everyone get delivered precisely to those who can be alarmed and enraged. No KGB is capable of such all-pervasive control over everyone’s wrongdoings and wrongthink. The Viral Inquisitor is the collective high priest of cancel culture.
But perhaps the worst element of this change is the way it abets the emergence of post-truth. A persistent interrogator, the Viral Inquisitor extracts users’ testimonies and checks them against the truths held by others. The Viral Inquisitor changes the way propositions are verified, challenging our very epistemology of truth.
Before literacy, a truth was confirmed by how well it comported with nature and its divine moving forces. Polytheism was the natural science of oral culture. To deal with nature, gods, and one another, humans made respective arrangements with all these. Better arrangements lasted longer and conferred better benefits on their participants—practice was the criterion of truth. Preliterate truths were conditional; they were negotiated and tested by outcomes.
Literacy separated truth from practice. It became possible to inscribe truth, to carry it on through time and space, amplifying its sacred meaning until it gained the status of the ultimate law. The so-called alphabet effect, according to physicist and media theorist Robert K. Logan, went further. The linear code of abstract signs for meaningless sounds enabled abstract logic, monotheism, and the concept of absolute truth. The multitude of practical truths held by varying groups in various situations was replaced by one moral law: that of God. The truth inscribed in the Book was unified. In different times, the Book was the scripture, the code of laws, the textbook; all contained absolute truth. In written culture, truth belongs to nobody but solely to the highest authority and can only be interpreted.
In the same way that digital speech combines oral and written speech, digital orality combines the preliterate and literate epistemologies of truth. The emancipation of authorship by the Internet undermined preexisting authorities, including the authority of absolute truth. As millions of people entered the business of meaning-production, the broadcasting of absolute truth lost its monopoly. Scriptures and textbooks forfeited their power. The caste of priest-interpreters was replaced by multiple crowd-sourced interpretations of the world. People now vote for truth with clicks. Truth is again up for negotiation.
In the digital world, the truth of a given statement can be confirmed once again by the practical outcomes that it generates. But these practical outcomes now happen in digital, not physical, reality. Since digital reality presents the world through the views of others, the truth of everyone is defined by the truths of others. Social media have legitimized crowd-sourced truths as a side effect of their design. Since online engagement is built on responses, the Viral Inquisitor demands that everyone relate to the truths of others.
People still select and deliver important content to one another, but content no longer takes the form of logical statements with truth-values that can be tested against the absolute truth. Instead, content becomes a vehicle for the expression of emotional attitudes. The automatic means of reaction, such as likes and reposts, on social media do not require logical deliberation. Under such a design, the point is to express the right attitude, not to convey true information.
Wrong information is tolerated when it allows the right attitude. And the right information is ignored if it supports the wrong attitude. Confirmation bias is implanted in the design: we trust what we “like.” This is why fake news victoriously marches across the Internet. The “truth” that has already been verified by viral distribution is too good to be fact-checked. The problem with fake news is not that it’s hard to refute—rebutting it is often easy. The problem is that people like fake news. They vote for it with their clicks and their likes.
Covid testified to the fact that truth is now constituted not by an authoritative source—be it religion, science, or power—but by the massiveness of its number of believers. The origin of the coronavirus, the efficiency of masks and vaccines, and the effects of lockdowns were all supposedly a matter of the highest scientific authority of science. Yet all became a matter of belief and political affiliation.
So did the dreadful event in which a man with a hammer attacked the spouse of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The focus of much public coverage was not on what happened to Paul Pelosi but on how the other side distorted the facts of the case. Judgments about the story replaced the story itself. Under such truth-verification conditions, the story remains a matter of probabilities, but judgments are certain and real; they are “proved” by dissemination, and they are voted for and verified, in lieu of the story itself. For its part, the news media, too, covered the proliferation of conspiracy theories. But conspiracies thrive when truth gives way to attitudes and groupthink. Conspiracies gain as much power as is lost by objective truth.
Social media have completed the epistemological mutation of truth into post-truth. One can mourn absolute truth and the culture based on it, but society must learn to adapt to the conditions of crowd-sourced, negotiated truth. Digital truth’s persuasiveness is more important than its rationale.
The Viral Inquisitor possesses algorithms that detect and report our preferences. It forces us into compliance and enables the next stage of digital development—the society of social scoring. The algorithms are good (and getting better) at detecting and tabulating our attitudes. For now, they decide what content to show us in accordance with our attitudes. Soon, they may use knowledge of our attitudes to tell us what to do. The viral inquisition will evolve accordingly. For now, the Viral Inquisitor still acts through the executive power of corporations. Soon, the algorithms may merge with government power. Social scoring would then become the Viral Inquisitor’s means of discipline and punishment.
Illustrations by Dante Terzigni