Viral Syndrome: The disease infecting journalism

A quick reflection on the imbalance between output and outreach.

Print media are alive and well at Pike Place newsstand [AP]
Digital promotion should have a limited role in determining the seriousness and substance of journalism, writes Bishara [AP]

Any self-respecting news outfit, or any other organisation concerned with outreach, is better off employing an army of community managers and digital prodigies.

Without them and their ilk of web designers and social media analysts, no news organisation can compete or get ahead in a predominantly digital universe, a world without frontiers.

Therefore, it is no coincidence that modern media organisations are becoming ever more dependent on these young talents. But the question is, how much is this dependency affecting journalism when, increasingly, viral trumps verity as the metric of success?

Fakes, frauds and falsities that go viral – The Listening Post


You see them hanging out around you; clever, curious, and clean. And unmistakably young. Like characters out of a science-fiction mystery, they have their own distinctive vocabulary, syntax and grammar.

They are by no means socially awkward, even if there’s a certain teen associability about them.

Communicating with them requires digital literacy; otherwise, you’re exposed to the type of embarrassment you first experience when ordering “coffee” at Starbucks.

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But they are by no means mathematical geniuses or book worms, and therefore the label geek or nerd doesn’t apply to them. They boast of a unique discipline that they insist shouldn’t be confused with another. As one reminded me recently with a certain dismissiveness, “I am digital, not technical.”

As one reminded me recently with a certain dismissiveness, 'I am digital, not technical.'


Indeed, they deserve their own title, and I suggest “smorgs”, social media orgies specialists. 

The landscape of the digital world is their field of work. And their objective is neither discovery nor recovery, but, rather, virtual re-engagement and regeneration.

Go viral

Viral or viral syndrome is, of course, a medical term that refers to fast-spreading infection that causes fever, muscle aches, or vomiting, cough, etc. But in today’s virtual world, the term has lost its notoriety when applied to the digital sphere, referring to the phenomenon of web content spreading fast, like fire in hay.

Digital analysts, like their medical counterparts, make it their business to diagnose the causes of the buzz. However, their mission is not to prevent viral spread, but, rather, to promote digital diarrhoea.  

And therefore, their objective is to break, not boost, our collective social immunity system. Indeed, their success depends on it.

Print media are alive and well at Pike Place newsstand [AP] 
Print media are alive and well at Pike Place newsstand [AP] 

And it seems at this early stage of the digital evolution that the younger the digital specialists, the better equipped they are to specialise in “viralism”. Not so different from how your very young son or niece puts you to shame every time your computer or cellphone goes berserk.

A brave new world

Digital viralism, like derivatives in investment banking, are deliberately complicated to shame any intellectual or economist, not to speak of the everyday Larry and Laila.

And in a world where having a Facebook, Instagram or Twitter account is no different from having a bank account, digital viralism, like derivatives and algorithms, is all about numbers, not value.


Like any disease suddenly gone viral, it’s all too often a mystery why suddenly a particular clip of domesticated animals goes wild on the Internet.

Indeed, the most watched video or any other content gone viral, tend to feature dogs, cats, babies and pop stars.

Otherwise, it’s voyeurism, mortifications and indignities that lead. In other words, same old, same old.

Substance and subsistence

Don’t get me wrong; I would love this piece to go viral. I am all for employing “smorgs” and improving the outreach of worthy content. And I am certainly for watching out for what’s trending in the digital world.

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But as it is with good old traditional marketing and distribution, digital promotion should have a limited role, if at all, in determining the seriousness, substance or even style of journalism.

What's the point of gaining the whole world and losing oneself?


Increasingly, young and inexperienced smorgs choose headlines, determine the duration and at times the very handling of news coverage in order to ensure wider reach. That’s a problem.

These data crunchers and #trending watchers may have a say in terms of presentation but not the priorities of a news organisation. 

Yes, their role is increasingly paramount for the very survival of a news organisation, but shouldn’t be a determining factor in covering or analysing the news.

Although we are rapidly moving away from the newsstand and the TV set to the digital platforms, the same social principles, professional ethics, and market forces continue to apply just the same. And so are the choices we make.

As a wise man said: What’s the point of gaining the whole world, and losing oneself?

Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.