Viralities: is there
a match between Mother Nature and social media?

Viralities: is there a match between Mother Nature and social media?

By a metaphor that has become commonplace, we say of social media that they make information content (text, photos, videos, links…) go viral; for better or for worse, extremist propaganda, fake news and other conspiracy theories come to mind.

At the origin of virality

The Covid-19 crisis, with its unprecedented scale and after effects, has shed a particular light on this issue. Is it the networks that factor the intrinsic virality of a data, information or knowledge; or is it rather the widespread, trivialized use and the rate of penetration of these same networks in our lives that make it, in a way, a virus?

Etymologically, virality refers to being contagious. It refers to a capacity for interference and a risk of infection or even death. Then it was in the mid-1980s, with the rise of expert systems, that software was created capable of modifying others, of “mutating” them. By spreading via a software medium, a program called a virus causes its host to behave as it does or in a way desired by its creator. Computer science therefore integrates the principle of contagion into its universe.

What are the implications for information and communication sciences?

“Virality” will refer here to a capacity for rapid and unpredictable dissemination of content on the Internet, through short and often free relays, whether it be social media or more traditional or advertising media. A content becomes “successful” if it is distinguished by the suddenness and unpredictability of its distribution. By taking up information themselves, Internet users recommend it, engaging in a quick and simple reception-selection-referral activity. Virality is therefore based entirely on a system of recommendation, which also plays a two-way street if ever content is altered, distorted, manipulated to say something else and discredit its author… This is just as much a case of a bacterial strain that could be “diverted” to make it a weapon of circumstantial or mass destruction.

However, are we able to match the intelligence of nature through our computer artefacts such as our social media? We know how to organize, predict behaviors and reactions according to elements of information, capitalize on heuristics of processing / acceptance / redistribution of elements of information. But even though models can be drawn a posteriori from different campaigns, variabilized in A/B testing, it seems that the chances of performance (and therefore of virality) are less easily verifiable and replicable for digital forms than in biological environments, supported by medical studies.

In the computer virality rate, there is a free will to make a recommendation. That is why we design attractive messages, marketing, social engineering, set up schemes and use seduction. In order to spread a computer virus, we use concealment, deception and usurpation sometimes.

Virus transmission and online virality

Everyone can also unconsciously become an accomplice by sharing content on social media if they have not taken care to verify the source or truthfulness of. In the same way, in the medical field, one becomes an infectious agent by simple mechanical contact, if biological conditions are met, even though one can also consciously contaminate someone as soon as one knows the rules of contagiousness of a virus.

Afterwards, it is not only the dynamics of exchange between the agents (their ability and willingness to disseminate), a mix of other, more “exogenous” factors must be taken into account in an attempt to make a performance predictable. But whether it is a question of pedagogy or individual computer hygiene or barrier gestures for the coronavirus, it is clear that parries exist to limit the virality of infected contents, i.e. deceptive and destructive. It is not all about regulation, but also about adopting responsible behaviour on a collective level.

Anyway, no virality is 100% passive. All its forms require actions, more or less conscious or discerning. Thus, natural viral loads are absolute (you are not aware that a bacterial agent has touched your nose), while artificial viral loads are relative: they do not work every time and contain the burden of proof, since they rely on acquiescence (even against concealment) on the part of the agent they touch.

This is the whole question of intentionality that arises in the virality of a content: if the intentionality of the social or technological is postulated, the same cannot be said of the natural or biological. Even if, intentionally or not, the vector remains ultimately exposed to the same risks – of contamination in the medical field, or legal sanctions in a more technological field.