Models of Viral Propagation in Digital Contexts

How Messages and Ideas—From Internet Memes to Fake News—Created by Consumers, Bots, and Marketers Spread

Authored by: Tien Ee Dominic Yeo

The Routledge Handbook of Digital Consumption

Print publication date:  September  2022
Online publication date:  September  2022

Print ISBN: 9781032329598
eBook ISBN: 9781003317524
Adobe ISBN:


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The digital manifestation of viral propagation—the repeated peer-to-peer communication of a message and its attendant idea—represents a fundamental shift in the way ideas, meanings, and information flow. While digital channels help to multiply the impact of viral propagation, they also accentuate the fallout from poorly executed viral campaigns or unintended viral messages. A more precise understanding of its nature and process gains in significance considering that viral propagation has enabled the unchecked proliferation of malicious messages that perpetuate misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy theories, vaccine skepticism, and hate speech. However, the lack of an integrative overview of pertinent scholarship on viral propagation across several disciplines has left us with knowledge silos of the phenomenon. Synthesizing extant works, this chapter highlights four theoretical models of viral propagation that explicate its conceptual foundations and the factors that shape its manifestation in digital contexts, comprising (1) viral marketing and memetic participatory culture; (2) emotional contagion and discrepancy theories; (3) word-of-mouth, diffusion theory, and network analysis; and (4) algorithmic culture, big data, and artificial intelligence. This chapter further reflects on the promises and pitfalls of viral propagation in the digital age and highlights the gaps in our knowledge concerning the consequences for individual consumers.

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