TRUTH DECAYThe ‘Dead Internet Theory’ Makes Eerie Claims About an AI-run Web. The Truth Is More Sinister

By Jake Renzella and Vlada Rozova

Published 10 June 2024

Is most of the content on the internet fake? Here’s what the dead internet theory really means – and why we should be warier of how we’re manipulated for profit and political gain.

If you search “shrimp Jesus” on Facebook, you might encounter dozens of images of artificial intelligence (AI) generated crustaceans meshed in various forms with a stereotypical image of Jesus Christ.

Some of these hyper-realistic images have garnered more than 20,000 likes and comments. So what exactly is going on here?

The “dead internet theory” has an explanation: AI and bot-generated content has surpassed the human-generated internet. But where did this idea come from, and does it have any basis in reality?

What Is the Dead Internet Theory?
The dead internet theory essentially claims that activity and content on the internet, including social media accounts, are predominantly being created and automated by artificial intelligence agents.

These agents can rapidly create posts alongside AI-generated images designed to farm engagement (clicks, likes, comments) on platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and TikTok. As for shrimp Jesus, it appears AI has learned it’s the current, latest mix of absurdity and religious iconography to go viral.

But the dead internet theory goes even further. Many of the accounts that engage with such content also appear to be managed by artificial intelligence agents. This creates a vicious cycle of artificial engagement, one that has no clear agenda and no longer involves humans at all.

Harmless Engagement-Farming or Sophisticated Propaganda?
At first glance, the motivation for these accounts to generate interest may appear obvious – social media engagement leads to advertising revenue. If a person sets up an account that receives inflated engagement, they may earn a share of advertising revenue from social media organizations such as Meta.

So, does the dead internet theory stop at harmless engagement farming? Or perhaps beneath the surface lies a sophisticated, well-funded attempt to support autocratic regimes, attack opponents and spread propaganda?

While the shrimp Jesus phenomenon may seem harmless (albeit bizarre), there is potentially a longer-term ploy at hand.

As these AI-driven accounts grow in followers (many fake, some real), the high follower count legitimizes the account to real users. This means that out there, an army of accounts is being created. Accounts with high follower counts which could be deployed by those with the highest bid.

This is critically important, as social media is now the primary news source for many users around the world. In Australia, 46% of 18 to 24-year-olds nominated social media as their main source of news last year. This is up from 28% in 2022, taking over from traditional outlets such as radio and TV.