Ideas as Viruses

by Seph Fischer ’25

Over the past few years, most have become painfully familiar with the spread and proliferation of viruses. By infecting a single initial source, a disease like COVID-19 can quickly grow out of control and spread far beyond its point of inception. Considering the high levels of interconnectivity present in the globalized world of the 2020s, there’s no telling what kind of chaos and destruction could be left in the wake of such a dangerous pathogen. Something interesting can be observed if one is to model the spread of ideas after the spread of disease; in a world with tools like the internet which facilitate the spread of ideas over vast distances, ideas become more contagious.

The most important thing to note when studying the spread of ideas as viruses is that certain ones will inherently gain superiority over other ideas. Just like COVID-19 is more contagious than the flu, certain ideas are more contagious than others. Ideas which appeal to common modern anxieties, or ideas that latch onto power, or ideas which promote collective solidarity, tend to be more powerful (and, as a result, more prevalent) than ideas which do not. This isn’t necessarily a judgment of the value of these ideas — they could very well be good ideas — it’s just important to note that there are reasons why, say, Andrew Tate-style masculinism thrives, while more thoughtful and considerate advice for men and boys often remains underground. Andrew Tate-style masculinism is simply cruder, simpler, and more marketable than something like Nietzschean philosophy, just like Vaush’s socialist takedowns are more digestible than any Marxist literature.

Many of the political struggles which take place in discourse today can be boiled down to the destructive power of ideas. The global spread of ideas and culture isn’t necessarily a bad or good thing; it is just an observable process whose negative effects must be recognized in order to counteract them. This process is tied intrinsically to democratic government. Whenever power and influence can be won if your specific idea wins, your idea must become as marketable and simple as possible in order to compete. The “marketplace of ideas” rationale models democratic governance in the capitalist marketplace, which fails to recognize the influence of power which differentiates the two.

This isn’t a new process and in many ways has caused the development of the American party system, which George Washington warned would likely become, “…potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government.” In order to achieve better discourse within a democratic society, it is essential that we first recognize the power of simple and contagious ideas over more pragmatic, future-looking, and long termist ones, and then resolve to counteract their influence in public discourse.