Did the mysterious producer of Innocence of Muslims—a video so comically amateurish it might have passed for a Saturday Night Live skit—imagine the death of an American diplomat? Unlikely. Yet he knew he had a lit match in his hand, and eagerly tossed it when he posted the 14-minute trailer of the fifth-rate film on YouTube. The surprise of the week (why are we still surprised?) is that it sailed all the way to the tinderbox. And then, when violence flared across the Arab world, YouTube pulled the plug, albeit selectively—blocking the offending virus in Egypt and Libya. It was the kind of free-speech overstep that should make us afraid of the suddenly achieved power that the new social-media behemoths wield. On the other hand, we’re left grasping for clear rules on the unregulated space of the Internet, not quite as real as the crowded theater where you can’t yell “fire,” but, as the week’s events make clear, also not as virtual as we might think.
Often when we say something “goes viral,” it’s good news—think Carly Rae Jepsen’s sweet “Call Me Maybe,” with its 250 million YouTube views in six months. But we have no language to distinguish the good viruses from the bad, the cheery from the hateful and grotesque—like the bullies who tormented their bus monitor or the Miami face-eater. Very occasionally, a video will shift the public conversation, like the one with Joe the Plumber. But knowing what will ultimately stick is impossible to predict and, as a result, impossible to manufacture. It’s true that this has always been how history is written, small causes creating global effects: Archduke Franz Ferdinand is assassinated; Rosa Parks gets fed up; the Sons of Liberty toss tea into Boston Harbor. But today real-world political events are accelerated and amplified by social media.
What’s perhaps strangest of all is that we have staked the future of democracy and freedom in the quicksand of Facebook and YouTube. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it in 2010, in a prominent speech on Internet freedom, “viral videos and blog posts are becoming the samizdat of our day.” Earlier this year, Mark Zuckerberg, embracing his company’s social mission, drew a straight line from the invention of the printing press to his site’s ability to “transform many of our core institutions.” The removal of the filter, which allows for just this sort of bewildering, unmediated rise to prominence, is the keystone: “governments will become more responsive to issues and concerns raised directly by all their people rather than through intermediaries controlled by a select few,” Zuckerberg writes in what could serve as a photo caption from Benghazi or Cairo or Tunis this week. But are we ready for our casual clicks to a friend to spin out into real-world chaos? The unintended consequences of viral media are, in a way, exactly the point—as much in political speech as in the increasingly common efforts of viral advertising, selling soda or shaving cream. But intended or not, those consequences are sometimes too real. No, the Innocence of Muslims producer probably didn’t imagine the death of a U.S. diplomat. But J. Christopher Stevens is, in fact, gone.