There are plenty of conspiracy theories available on the internet. If you want to believe the world is flat and that if you walk off the edge you simply teleport your way to the other side like Pac-Man, you'd better believe that there's someone on the internet who will support you in your weirdly specific ignorance. But what if [leans in close and checks for nearby CIA operatives] the internet is all part of the conspiracy too?
That is the basic launching point of the "Dead Internet Theory", the conspiracy theory that claims that in 2016 or 2017, the internet became much worse, and you are now logging on to a graveyard absent of human activity.
What is the dead internet theory?
“The Internet feels empty and devoid of people. It is also devoid of content. Compared to the internet of say 2007 (and beyond) the Internet of today is entirely sterile. There is nowhere to go and nothing to do, see, read or experience anymore," one influential post on the topic reads. "Yes, the Internet may seem gigantic, but it’s like a hot air balloon with nothing inside.”
A pretty dull idea, but of course the conspiracy theory gets wacky. It claims that the internet as we know it today is largely just artificial intelligence (AI) generated content, put there for nefarious purposes.
"There is a large-scale, deliberate effort to manipulate culture and discourse online and in wider culture by utilising a system of bots and paid employees whose job it is to produce content and respond to content online in order to further the agenda of those they are employed by,” the aforementioned post claims.
According to conspiracy theorists, these bots attempt to influence public perception on just about any political topic, or else keep you constantly distracted and buying products, to keep you from questioning the elites.
Of course, there is a lot of bot activity on the internet. In fact, nearly half of all internet traffic (not internet content) came from bots in 2022. This includes activity like distributed denial-of-service (DDOS) attacks, where websites are maliciously overloaded with a barrage of automated requests.
“Bots have evolved rapidly since 2013, but with the advent of generative artificial intelligence, the technology will evolve at an even greater, more concerning pace over the next 10 years,” Karl Triebes, senior vice president at Imperva, the firm who carried out the research, said in a statement at the time.
“Cyber criminals will increase their focus on attacking API endpoints and application business logic with sophisticated automation. As a result, the business disruption and financial impact associated with bad bots will become even more significant in the coming years.”
These bots are probably already familiar to you from social media.
Bot-generated content is a problem for search engines, which is also only going to get worse. People have complained about Google's decline in the last few years, with studies backing up the idea that it is sending people to less useful content than before. Marissa Mayer, the 20th employee to join Google who went on to serve as CEO of Yahoo, believes that the problem is down to the internet itself becoming worse.
“I do think the quality of the Internet has taken a hit," Mayer told Freakonomics. "When I started at Google, there were about 30 million web pages, so crawling them all and indexing them all was relatively straightforward. It sounds like a lot, but it’s small. Today, I think there was one point where Google had seen more than a trillion URLs.”
Mayer added that it was natural for people to blame Google when they aren't getting the quality search results they used to, but she sees Google's results as more of a window into the web itself.
"The real question is, why is the web getting worse?"
Though it can feel like the internet is getting worse, and that bot activity is on the increase due to their availability and ease of use, that doesn't mean that the internet is dead. The majority of content is still produced by humans, even if traffic is edging closer to an even split between AI and humans.
Like all good conspiracy theories, the Dead Internet Theory takes a kernel of truth or agreed sentiment (that the internet is getting worse, and that bot activity is increasing) and twists it into something it isn't. Bot activity is on the increase, and that's far from a good thing for the internet, particularly as this is the content the next generation of AI chatbots will be trained on. But the majority of content you see online and people on social media are not bots, and the internet is far from dead.