The internet is dead, according to the internet. It’s a contradictory statement, I know. How could an entity that is alive claim that it is deceased?
But a growing number of online communities believe the internet “died” sometime between 2016 and 2017 and has since been taken over by bots that are spreading seemingly lifeless content that Big Tech and the government created in attempts to manipulate culture en masse.
If this is starting to seem like a conspiracy theory, you are correct.
This alleged phenomenon has been dubbed the Dead Internet Theory. I first read about it in an article from The Atlantic titled “Maybe You Missed It, but the Internet ‘Died’ Five Years Ago,” which offers a deep dive into this strange, outlandish ideology filled with deepfakes, artificial intelligence and government psyops.
I am a sucker for a good conspiracy theory. Mainly, I am fascinated by how such stories originate and what they tell us about our broader culture. Just as The Atlantic writer Kaitlyn Tiffany poses, the Dead Internet Theory “[is] ridiculous, but possibly not that ridiculous?” Discard all the farcical details, and we wonder: could there be a glimmer of truth? I went down a rabbit hole of Reddit forums and YouTube videos to see for myself.
On a conspiracy Reddit forum, users try to legitimize — or delegitimize — the Dead Internet Theory. Some ardent believers, like user UMSHINI-WEQANDA-4K, claim that “this is a theory in the way gravity is a theory.” Others, such as user Chitauri2, state the theory should be loosely viewed. The internet hasn’t died per se, but they suggest the structure and content have dramatically changed since the early aughts.
Chitauri2 notes how content used to be primarily generated by people. Now, AI has advanced enough that bots are not only disseminating content, but they are generating it, which according to them, is causing homogenization. I could see this point.
Theoretically, a person or company could deploy bots to artificially create and amplify a post. Through algorithms on Facebook or Twitter, the same message will be viewed ad nauseam. This, of course, is a great way to sell a product, promote a personal brand or launch a campaign. But it’s a double-edged sword when self-interest or political agendas completely take over.
“Yes, the internet might seem gigantic, but it’s like a hot air balloon with nothing inside,” states YouTuber Comrade Slav, who advocates a more extreme view on the Dead Internet Theory.
The Dead Internet Theory harkens back to an imageboard on 4chan, where users — or anonymous users like Comrade Slav — have come together to question why the web looks and feels different since 2016. They ask: why do posts and comments get recycled? Why has creativity on the web been replaced by an automated culture?
Reasonable questions, right? But this critique detours into conspiracy as this YouTuber attempts to break down exactly why the internet has changed.
He states how companies, such as those in Big Tech, are in cahoots with the government and use AI technologies to get us to buy products and push agendas. He also states how the internet has become an echo chamber that is devoid of original thought and that many politicians and actors we see on TV are not real people but are “deepfakes” — or CGI rendered individuals.
Essentially, he and other anons believe nothing is as it seems.
Why pay so much attention to such a conspiracy? Well, as the internet becomes a central focus in our lives, I believe it is important to probe at the system that we are collectively creating.
Algorithms and bots may be helpful tools, but it is important to ask ourselves: what are the long-term effects of these technologies? How are they affecting our daily interactions, politics and perceptions of the world? How can they be better regulated?
The internet is not dead. But maybe aspects of it should be shed to create a digital community that enlarges us rather than divides us.
At least, that is the internet I wish to see.