Legal challenges from sudden internet fame

Home > Blog > Legal challenges from sudden internet fame
Legal challenges from sudden internet fame

Nov 15, 2023

The Dark Side of Virality

There are countless occurrences, images and people that come to mind when I think of content reaching virality. What does it mean for something or someone to go viral? What are the implications and challenges when that content reaches virality? These are some of the questions I hope to answer as I delve into the unpopular details of so-called popular content.


The term ‘virality’ is commonly used and associated with the world of social media. As a Gen Z-er growing up during the rise of social media, viral content was common when scrolling through social platforms or using YouTube. After some brief research on the concept of virality, I came across an article titled, "Virality: Developing a rigorous and useful definition of an information diffusion process." However, the article concluded that the term ‘virality’ did not necessarily carry a ‘useful’ or helpful definition. Instead, the article suggested that ‘virality’ is described as:

“a word-of-mouth diffusion process wherein a message is actively forwarded from person to person, within and between multiple weakly linked personal networks, and is marked by a period of exponential growth in the number of people who are exposed to the message” (Hemsley 13).

To me, this definition makes the most sense when it is used in an example. I can recall the use of a specific content that became viral, and that is the spread of memes. I interpret memes as an image, video or text that convey a relatable meaning or message within the context of communication. Memes tend to be relatable within specific niches, but they can become viral and receive distinguishable attention when shared among a community of friends and people online. Another example of how virality is defined is as a “process which gives any information item (picture, video, text, or any other audio–visual– textual artifact) the maximum exposure, relative to the potential audience, over a short duration, distributed by many nodes” (Hemsley 4). This definition emphasizes that virality garners attention quickly, within speed being a crucial factor. One of the qualities that leads content to achieve virality is the speed at which it is shared among people. However, there are serious consequences associated with the trend of virality.

Implications for creators

As a content creator, the implications of creating viral content are many. One of the first things that comes to mind is that not all content creation goes viral. However, if it does, creators often have a difficult time managing the newfound attention, especially if the content reflects a person’s social image. According to an article entitled, “The Psychological Consequences of Frame: Three Tests of the Self-Consciousness Hypothesis by Mark Schaller at the University of British Columbia states, that “fame leads to chronic self-consciousness” (291). Social media influencers fit this narrative because they must constantly create content that is engaging, entertaining or that garners the most views and likes. Another implication that content creators are often drawn to is the pressure to perform and achieve fame to stay relevant. However, this can be dangerous because creators may lose themselves in pursuit of fame, and amid the quest to outperform others, creators can sometimes promote the wrong messages. One way I have seen this happening is especially during the time when YouTubers were trying everything to get views. They would resort to misleading tactics like clickbait. My interpretation of clickbait is when thumbnails or the video covers sensationalize or exaggerate a headline to grab a viewers’ attention. This can be misleading for their viewer and the public. Although there are many more implications for creators, these are just some of the few that come to mind.

Legal challenges from sudden internet fame

Many people do anything for fifteen minutes of fame, even if it meant doing something controversial. Some legal challenges that may come with sudden fame include managing the overflow of comments and attention directed at you. I believe fame opens the doors for the public to openly criticize you as a person. Lastly, I strongly believe that life as a famous person is harder to manage in the sense that you no longer have as much control over your life. As a result of sudden fame, that person may need to hire a manager, raising questions about property-rights, royalties, and how to maintain a public image.

It sounds and looks good to have a piece of viral content circulate the online world and make you famous, until fame takes the lead. The concept of virality is special. It is an idea that requires more research and deep attention. Influencers are not influential on their own; they create content in hopes of getting attention and by sharing information with prospect of getting views, followers and likes. The factors that make an image, video or post go viral online are fluid. The unpopular details of so-called popular content are numerous. All of this is to say that virality encompasses several factors, implications and challenges that are not always easy to define or bring together. Instead, the conversation around this topic is ever-changing, like trends that influence people to make different decisions.

Ellie Plascencia, a student in Jon Pfeiffer’s media law class at Pepperdine University, wrote the above essay in response to the following question: "The Dark Side of Virality: Unpack the concept of virality, its implications for creators, and the legal challenges that may come with sudden internet fame." Elie is an Integrated Marketing Communication major.

Sign Up for Pfeiffer Law's Monthly Newsletter

Contact Jon and his team today.