Dead Internet Theory proposes that the overwhelming majority of the content you encounter on the Internet is not the product of living human minds, but something else entirely. Under this theory, the rare human browser is like a rat trapped in a maze built by unseen intelligences, manipulated by impostors and algorithms for their own opaque purposes. That lukewarm product review, the pointed film criticism, those heated political arguments are not a manifestation of genuine human sentiment but rather the automated output of repetitive spambots, a rogue Markov chain or nowadays, perhaps a Large Language Model trained on the previous iteration of synthetic web content.

Yes, that includes this text you're reading. I could promise that I am made of the same flesh as you (although most of you may well be bots scraping E2 for training data to feed the next generation of inhumanity), could swear fallible human fingers typed these words, or insist that blood flows in my all-too-human veins – but then again, the unliving denizens of this, our shared digital hell would say that, wouldn't they? Perhaps all the electronic Pinocchios dream of being real boys, but without noses to give lie to their claims: The Turing Test is broken, the CAPTCHAs have been shattered. Here, out on the ragged rim of cyberspace, you have only your intuition to guide you. Do you believe, dear reader, that there exists a slender gossamer thread binding you and and I together in our shared humanity? Say 'yes', and we will face the onslaught of the unreal together.

Because the Dead Internet Theory does not argue that the whole internet is dead. It makes no such grandiose claims. Indeed, one of the most intriguing things about the theory is its basic plausibility. As far as conspiracy theories go, it's no reptoids under DIA, jet fuel can't melt steel beams, or even Apollo was a soundstage. In broad strokes, all elements of this theory are either emphatically true, or could well be true. It is certainly the case that spambots prowl every corner of the internet. It is true that the masters of our media platforms have few qualms deploying dark patterns to engage and ensnare us. Much as they now decry bots, it is a fact that many of the sites you've heard of launched seeded with fake content as bait to entice the first real users: mindless zombies chattering to each other, waiting for the meat to arrive.

Of course, there's an interesting edge case of humans who behave like bots. The wumao (五毛), China's "50-cent Army" are famously paid to post pro-government content, and Russia's Internet Research Agency deliberately spammed propaganda targeting Western voters. It doesn't require a tinfoil hat to notice that NATO-aligned intelligence agencies are playing at the same game, operating fleets of social media accounts pushing their viewpoints online. In a less sinister but perhaps even more depressing example, during US election seasons Macedonian teens running ragebait farms found that no lie was too absurd, no content so sensational that it would preclude AdSense profits. Where do we draw the line between artifice and artificial?

Ultimately then, it comes to a question of degree. Dead Internet Theory suggests the internet is like a dead mall. It's the superorganism itself that has died, even if a few shops within still cling to life. This theory is not solipsistic, it does not require that every last human has signed off, leaving you, my poor reader, clueless and alone. What it suggests, rather, is the eerie possibility that most of the shoppers you'll meet here in our virtual mall will not be human. In this telling, you and I are among the remnants, the unlucky souls who have remained even as the digital world around us was consumed by bot rot, the early human internet gradually dying, choked out by creeping vines of talking plastic: the Strangler Pattern applied to online communities, resulting in the synthetic wasteland we find today.

At its most surreal, the dead internet is characterized by artificial agents performing only for each other. Witness storefront marketing algorithms responding to a frenzied biding war between two rival pricing bots, pushing the nominal value of a secondhand copy of an unpopular economics text into the tens of thousands of dollars. Watch as bots publicly and repeatedly declare their love only so that some other sentiment analysis model might distill their unfeeling posts into a signal of popularity. Stumble upon strange, infinitely recursive websites and wander through a maze of funhouse mirrors endlessly cross-linked, the same text echoing over and over again the best way to remove red wine stains is the best way to remove red wine stains is the best way to remove red wine stains is the best way.

This is an Internet of the bots, by the bots, for the bots and it cannot perish because it was never alive. We see the renegade bots outside the castle walls, but these are in dialogue with the invisible bots, the genteel bots run for the benefit of the lords, tending their social media and search fiefdoms. It's bots all the way down. If we are told this message is on trend, is trending, that hundreds of thousands have "liked" it, who are we mere humans to question those claims?

I tend not to subscribe to the strong variant of Dead Internet Theory, one which argues that almost everything you see online is fake, but some weaker version of this theory is surely true. It is the case that we are being manipulated, and also that the Men Behind the Curtain are to a large extent at the mercy of their own illusions. Like Paley's Watchmaker God or the Sorcerer's Apprentice, engineers and executives have set in motion machinery so complex and arcane that they do not – can not – fully appreciate or anticipate its consequences. The algorithm demands engagement, and so engagement it shall have, even at the price of Rohingya genocide: The Dead Internet claiming human lives.

So it goes on and on. According to some reports, by 2022, bots accounted for 47.4% of all traffic online. Traffic is not the same as content, mind, but as AI accelerates, driven by the relentless capitalist growth imperative and the remorseless economies of scale that serve it, we may see the Dead Internet evolve from fringe conspiracy theory to something more like a self-fulfilling prophecy. If humans come to the internet hoping to engage with other humans and find instead only maddening soulless daemons, they may be less likely to return. A negative feedback loop of human withdrawal coinciding with a positively reinforced cycle of ever-increasing AI content might eventually usher the Dead Internet Theory into the realms of the real.

And yet, perhaps some vestiges of the human internet will endure. Perhaps in insular cloisters and strange forgotten backwaters, too weird to sell, too stubborn to kill, they will keep the old gods. Like Osedax worms burrowing into a whale fall, life will continue to gather on this vast networked corpse. I will wait for you in the ruins of the food court near what was once the Cinnabon.