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Social Media Is a New Vector For Mass Psychogenic Illness 373

Hugh Pickens DOT Com writes "There is an interesting read at the Atlantic where Laura Dimon writes that mass psychogenic illness, historically known as "mass hysteria"—is making a comeback and it appears that social media is a new vector for its spread. Mass hysteria such as the Salem Witch Trials of 1692-1693, the most widely recognized episode of mass hysteria in history, which ultimately saw the hanging deaths of 20 women, spreads through sight and sound, and historically, one person would have to be in the same room as somebody exhibiting symptoms to be at risk of 'catching' the illness. 'Not anymore,' says Robert Bartholomew, a sociologist who has studied over 600 cases of mass hysteria dating back to 1566, noting that social media — 'extensions of our eyes and ears' — speeds and extends the reach of mass hysteria. 'Epidemic hysterias that in earlier periods were self-limited in geography now have free and wide access to the globe in seconds,' says Bartholomew. 'It's a belief, that's the power here, and the technology just amplifies the belief, and helps it spread more readily.' In a recent case, nearly 20 students at a Western New York Junior-Senior High school began experiencing involuntary jerks and tics. Some believe that the Le Roy outbreak was a direct result of videos posted to YouTube by Lori Brownell, a girl with severe tics in Corinth, New York, 250 miles east of Le Roy. The story took off quickly, not just on the local and national news but on Facebook and autism blogs and sites devoted to mental health and environmental issues. Bartholomew warns that there is 'potential for a far greater or global episode, unless we quickly understand how social media is, for the first time, acting as the primary vector or agent of spread for conversion disorder.'"
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Social Media Is a New Vector For Mass Psychogenic Illness

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  • by J.J. Dane ( 1562629 ) on Thursday September 12, 2013 @01:02PM (#44831873)

    Psychiatrists identify social media as new source of revenue..

    • Re:In other news (Score:5, Insightful)

      by fredrated ( 639554 ) on Thursday September 12, 2013 @01:07PM (#44831939) Journal

      Non-snark version: Psychiatrists identify social media as new source of hysteria.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Seumas ( 6865 )

        Truth may sound like, but not actually be, snark.

      • by Garridan ( 597129 ) on Thursday September 12, 2013 @01:18PM (#44832049)
        Cynic version: government finds new justification to censor social media.
      • by Quirkz ( 1206400 )

        This is new? I've been seeing hysteria in various forms on FaceBook since I started using it 7 or 8 years ago. Hysteria about vaccines, about GMO, about diet sodas, about election results. Most of that is just an extension of the general internet mass-circulated hysteria Snopes was created to combat, but it's been there for a while.

        I admit passing along physical tics like some sort of physical meme is a new one, but the hysteria vector has been there for a long time.

    • by endus ( 698588 )

      My shrink told me she doesn't do social media because all her patients tell her how horrible it is. .......I had just finished telling her how horrible social media was.

  • by i kan reed ( 749298 ) on Thursday September 12, 2013 @01:06PM (#44831915) Homepage Journal

    Truisms aside, this reminds me of the fact that they're still trying to redefine "delusions" in the DSM, because the Internet invalidated the old criteria, which went something like "Things believed by the individual, not supported by observation, and not shared with their social groups."

    The internet made an avenue for crazy people to find similar crazy people, and form social connections with them, in a way that reinforced their own delusions quite directly. I don't think anyone has found a satisfactory conclusion to that problem, because they really don't want something that will classify people's religions as delusions.

    • by schlachter ( 862210 ) on Thursday September 12, 2013 @01:17PM (#44832033)

      interesting. its like how religious people are not delusional because they have other people that believe what they believe. by all other standards, they would be considered delusional.

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Except, by no valid standards would they be considered delusional. Dawkins pejorative book-naming choices, and the collection of parrots regurgitating that, is not a serious scientific decision.

        The DSM provides us with a scientific one, perfectly suitable, and it only being challenged because atheists have a fixation on not retracting their clearly-false usage. If a belief is consistent with one's widespread cultural norms (and a "culture" requires more than a handful of people congregating on the Interne

        • by i kan reed ( 749298 ) on Thursday September 12, 2013 @01:31PM (#44832189) Homepage Journal

          I'm an atheist myself, but "everyone is wrong about something" is an important mantra to keep in mind. The wrong is more important to human understanding than the right, because it gives you extra lenses with which to examine and expand what you already know. Free speech exists for a reason.

      • interesting. its like how religious people are not delusional because they have other people that believe what they believe. by all other standards, they would be considered delusional.

        To quote Budweiser/NFL: It's only weird if it doesn't work.

    • by bagboy ( 630125 ) <> on Thursday September 12, 2013 @01:18PM (#44832055)

      The internet made an avenue for crazy people to find similar crazy people, and form social connections with them, in a way that reinforced their own delusions quite directly.

      Umm... the birth of Slashdot?

    • Most people tend to believe things based on their social groups. Which is why Republicans and Democrats tend to be clumped together and have similar beliefs on completely unrelated issues.
      • by Jmc23 ( 2353706 )
        Learn the meaning of 'why'.
      • Lumping people together is almost always a mental shortcut that does yourself and others a disservice.

      • Most people tend to believe things based on their social groups. Which is why Republicans and Democrats tend to be clumped together and have similar beliefs on completely unrelated issues.

        I've always wondered why gun owners are expected to be religious. Just because both are (allegedly) Republicans?

        • Could you seriously justify ending another person's life yourself, if you didn't believe in an afterlife for them?

          • No...I'd have a harder time justifying ending another person's life, with the understanding that it's highly likely that their afterlife is going to be infinitely more horrible [] than the worst possible current life they're living now. Which is why I don't own any firearms, or anything that is primarily a weapon, even of self-defense.

            But that's just me.

            • Rather than debate a religion I don't believe in's dogma, I'll just say that my CONCLUSION would be that there is plenty of scriptural reason for you to never assume you are capable of judging another person vis-a-vis hell.

          • I've never met a republican, religious person or gun owner who justified homicide with that reason.

            It was almost always 'they got what they deserved'.

            They always believed they were the judge, not the supreme being in the afterlife.

            • Well, I guess I expect a deeper philosophical examination of such a far-reaching decision than most people are willing to put forth. That makes me a little sad.

          • Sure, if he needed killing it doesn't matter what happens later. Oblivion or hell, doesn't matter if there was a real world reason (e.g. defense of self, others or property) to kill the bastard.

    • by MrHanky ( 141717 )

      What? I don't think the DSM is about to redefine delusion, as a psychiatric term, to include truthers, chemtrail-believers and AGW denialists.

      • They haven't actually made a change. It was just a serious problem raised with the diagnostic criteria, because a lot of classically delusional people were finding a social group that shared their beliefs.

      • Don't forget vaccination/autism & gluten 'allergies'.

  • Error in summary (Score:5, Informative)

    by dkleinsc ( 563838 ) on Thursday September 12, 2013 @01:07PM (#44831931) Homepage

    Actually, 6 of the 20 people executed in Salem MA were men. And one of them (Giles Corey) wasn't even convicted, he just refused to plead and at the time torturing to force a plea was legal.

    • by Nidi62 ( 1525137 )
      And one of the men was executed not by hanging but by crushing when he refused to confess as they slowly piled large rocks on top of him.
      • Actually, he wasn't refusing to *confess*, he was refusing to *plead* (guilty or not guilty). Because if he didn't plead, they couldn't try him, and if they couldn't try him, they couldn't convict him, and if they didn't convict him his property couldn't be confiscated. He figured he was dead already but this way his family wouldn't have to live in poverty. An amazing man, Giles Corey was.

      • Re:Error in summary (Score:5, Informative)

        by Valdrax ( 32670 ) on Thursday September 12, 2013 @02:09PM (#44832641)

        That would be Giles Corey.

        Honestly, by all accounts, he was kind of a stubborn asshole, though his final spiteful triumph has led to him being lionized. It's worth remembering though that he was fined for beating one of his indentured servants to death over a petty theft and is said to have tangled with the law several times afterwards. He was described as "a powerful brute of a man and feared by many in the village." He also attempted to throw his wife under the bus first.

        His irascible personality and conflict with the Putnams is probably the main reason he was fingered as a witch in the first place. Probably any excuse to get rid of the miserable old coot.

    • "the Salem Witch Trials of 1692-1693, the most widely recognized episode of mass hysteria in history, which ultimately saw the hanging deaths of 20 women..."

      Yes, that's very peculiar.

      Apparently George Burroughs, John Willard, George Jacobs, Sr., John Proctor, Samuel Wardwell, Giles Corey, and Roger Toothaker-- the men killed in the Salem witch hysteria-- aren't worth mentioning, because it's expected that people will only get angry about injustice if the victims are women?

  • by SirGarlon ( 845873 ) on Thursday September 12, 2013 @01:10PM (#44831969)

    I blame Facebook for a lot, but I think they deserve a pass for this. "Mass hysteria" looks to me like a real phenomenon, but that doesn't mean the "victims" aren't doing in on purpose.

    For example, from one of the stories [] linked in the summary:

    "... At last all the nuns meowed together every day at a certain time for several hours together." The meowing went on until neighbors complained and soldiers were called, threatening to whip the nuns until they stopped meowing.

    If they can stop whenever they want, then I have a hard time calling it a "disease." It sounds more like "being an asshole." (See also, Salem witch trials.)

    • Why would you think they can stop being hysterical?
      It's not voluntary anymore than being an asshole is (and I don't see many assholes suddenly decide to stop being assholes).
    • "... At last all the nuns meowed together every day at a certain time for several hours together." The meowing went on until neighbors complained and soldiers were called, threatening to whip the nuns until they stopped meowing.

      jeeze, trigger warnings there. You just blew the circuits of like three different groups of people while getting off another six.

  • by tiberus ( 258517 ) on Thursday September 12, 2013 @01:12PM (#44831991)
    Guy: Where did you hear that?
    Girl: The Internet.
    Guy: And you believed it?
    Girl: Yeah. They can't put anything on the Internet that isn't true.
    Guy: Where did you hear that?
    Girl: The Internet.
    Girl: Oh Look, here comes my date. I met him on the internet. He's a french model.
    French Guy: Bonjour.

  • We've probably all read accounts of primitive cultures contacted by moderns. The primitives suffer in various ways because they aren't prepared to handle what moderns have. Aside from the microbes, they can't handle the technology sometimes. If you've read those accounts smugly, quit it. The West is not immune. The difference is that we introduced the new things to ourselves. The bad news is that these authors may be right on some level even though it sounds like they themselves are engaging in hyste

  • Hey man... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Thursday September 12, 2013 @01:14PM (#44832005) Journal
    'Wanna try some snow crash?'
  • facebook_ip=
    route add $facebook_ip gw lo
    I'll thank you kindly to finalize your intentions post haste for any doctorates, statues, or parades or street names in my honour you wish to confer upon me.
    • Hmm, a common medication that doesn't work for 95% of the world's population doesn't seem like a very good treatment.

  • just the other day I noticed there are many church groups on facebook with people professing their belief in all the imaginary stuff that comes with church affiliation. how is this not more significant than the salem witch trials? hundreds of millions of people have been killed from this mass delusion.

    • by minstrelmike ( 1602771 ) on Thursday September 12, 2013 @01:30PM (#44832175)
      in defense of the religions, people weren't actually killed _because_ of the delusions. Every homo sapiens social group that operates has a belief system of some sort and probably every single one of those is incorrect in serious ways.
      And since every single social group has also killed and attacked other social groups, you don't get to blame their over-arching religion or philosophy, most of which are at odds with each other and even with themselves (being internally inconsistent). Every group has those. It's one of the ways any specific -group- is defined.

      I know most folks like to blame history on socio-political issues but they are incorrect. Every group has a religion and philosophy just as every human has a spleen, a gall bladder and ligaments. Without ligaments, nothing gets done but we don't say ligaments _cause_ individual human actions.

      Belief in a Creator God is a delusion but belief that religion causes the wars fought in its name is also a delusion.
  • I think I have psychogenic illness now!!!
  • The symptom is "hysteria", the root cause is fear.

    Social media (actually the WWW) is the communication medium. It makes the world smaller, this we know. It isn't special in it's ability to spread the "disease".

  • There was a (bad) horror movie along this principle: people dying in their sleep from no known cause. Apparently, if people believed that "shadow people" were out to get them, a negative placebo effect would take place, and they'd actually die from the belief alone.

    The protagonist trying to expose the phenomenon was convinced, at the last moment, not to, lest an epidemic result.

  • by Geste ( 527302 ) on Thursday September 12, 2013 @01:19PM (#44832067)
    ... it is mass hysteria.
  • This article made me twitch... twitch... twitch...
  • by ClassicASP ( 1791116 ) on Thursday September 12, 2013 @01:26PM (#44832141)
    I can see it happening. The NSA is relatively new, so next comes the NMHPA (National Mass Hysteria Prevention Agency). They'll censor the internet systematically with advanced technology solutions and and say "No, we're not oppressing people's right to free speech. We're preventing panic caused by mass hysteria".
  • Indeed it is (Score:5, Interesting)

    by smooth wombat ( 796938 ) on Thursday September 12, 2013 @01:28PM (#44832161) Journal

    The belief that your photos and comments are somehow important to anyone else on the planet.

  • IT Crowd 106: Aunt Irma Visits []

    Richmond: You shouldn't have sent out this e-mail detailing the symptoms. You know how suggestible and easily swayed I.T. people are.
    Roy: That's not true!
    Richmond: Yes it is.
    Roy: No you're right. Of course it is.

  • by alen ( 225700 ) on Thursday September 12, 2013 @01:30PM (#44832179)

    both my kids had all kinds of conditions and diseases because my wife read all kinds of crap on the mommy and parent blogs and the kids fit most of the symptoms

  • Human sacrifice! Dogs and cats living together!

  • Hysteria (Score:2, Funny)

    by Ann Coulter ( 614889 )

    Please do not use the term "hysteria" as it denigrates women. That word originates from the Greek word for "uterus," with the word "hysterectomy" sharing the same lineage, and perniciously qualifies women as raving lunatics.

  • Personally I see more hysteria transmitted through news anchors and journalists than through FB and TW, not that they do not contribute.

  • by argStyopa ( 232550 ) on Thursday September 12, 2013 @01:45PM (#44832371) Journal

    ...the only thing that would make this even better is if these 'diseases' were fatal.

    Any disease spreadable to the special snowflakes that could catch such 'diseases' over social media could ONLY be a win for Darwin generally.

  • by Dimwit ( 36756 ) on Thursday September 12, 2013 @02:00PM (#44832551)

    Not that peanut and gluten allergies don't exist, but in the past few years I've gone from knowing no one with either to running into people everywhere with one or the other. Seriously, I work with three people with gluten allergies, one guy with a peanut allergy, and the waitress who served me at a restaurant last night told me she'd never had the sandwiches there because she had a gluten allergy. Menus are popping up everywhere with gluten free options.

    Schools are setting themselves up as peanut free areas and banning all peanut products even though the number of severe food reactions in a country of 310,000,000 is less than 2000 a year, with fewer than 150 deaths from all food allergies in all age groups combined. More than ten times as many people die falling down the stairs every year, but we're not mandating that schools be single-story. The rate of deaths by firearm for school-aged children is far far higher (second most likely cause of death for high-school aged children after car accidents), but we don't ban guns from homes with school-aged children or prevent school-aged from going to friends' houses where there are guns.

    So, don't get me wrong - peanut allergies and gluten allergies most certainly exist, but the response in lots of places has been all out of proportion to the risk involved. I wonder if part of it has to do with the easy accessiblity of compatriots via social media. We as a species like to panic about things. I'm not immune: when my son was born preterm (he's fine now) my wife and I went into what could only be described as folie a deux about his health.

    • by thoromyr ( 673646 ) on Thursday September 12, 2013 @04:47PM (#44834433)

      Part of the problem is the science of allergies. Or, rather, the lack thereof. Combine this with a growing awareness of allergies and a burgeoning market in telling people what they are allergic to and you get the current state of affairs. This is complicated because no one seems to have even the slightest interest in the science of the field.

      An allergy, at least when I was growing up, was a reaction that ultimately resulted in anaphylactic shock. In principle, an allergy can kill you.

      People are complex biological organisms that are very poorly understood. There are allergies to various environmental factors (dust mites, certain plants, etc.) and to foods (peanuts and soy are perhaps the most common). But there are other ways/reasons for a body to react poorly to environmental factors or foods. I react poorly to (something in) eggs. I have an issue with casein (which is what makes cheese good, and fake cheese lacking it bad). I'm not allergic to eggs, nor do I have a milk allergy. Nevertheless, my body functions better when I consume neither.

      Allergy testing is like something out of medieval medicine. There's a common sensical understanding of it, but apparently no actual science. And if you want to make an "allergy doctor" dance, suggest that you get closely repeated testing. They don't like to admit it, but the reproducibility of allergy testing is almost non-existent and having a reasonable time interval allows insertion of vague claims such as "your body has changed". They have fluid ideas about the subject and are more interested in running tests, administering "innoculation" witch's brews, and generally making money off of the fad than actually studying the subject.

  • Slapping a 'mass hysteria' label on a phenomenon you cannot explain might make you feel more comfortable in your little corner of the universe, but it should not be confused with actually determining a provable cause. Mass hysteria isn't any more provable than demonic possession or alien mind control. It's a catchall for 'I give up'.

  • by Metathran0 ( 1052636 ) on Thursday September 12, 2013 @02:41PM (#44833007)

    Okay, seriously? If so many people are going to hate on a field, at least have the decency to hate on the right one.

    I'm tired of so many people taking this as evidence that psychology/psychiatry is wrong or over-reactive and therefore we must never pay any attention to it. First, the article's main expert is a sociologist, not a psychologist or psychiatrist. Granted, there's some overlap in the fields, but not enough that I'd trust the guy to start diagnosing or treating people. Second, as the article goes on, the other 'experts' referenced are in order: a nurse (LPN), a neurologist, another neurologist, and whatever the hell you call someone with a PhD in the history of medicine.

    You'd think that if this were some sort of conspiracy by psychologists/psychiatrists to drum up legitimacy/business/interest for their field, they'd have the decency to at least provide an expert on their behalf.

    Oh, not that this is entirely relevant, but just for the record, psychiatrists are MDs who specialize in mental disorders. Psychologists are PhDs who specialize in mental disorders and human behaviour. Psychologists cannot prescribe medications; so all the complaints about how psychologists are people who do nothing but a front for drug companies and push pills all the live long day? You're thinking of psychiatrists (and in my experience, there are a great many psychologists who would agree with you).

  • by tacokill ( 531275 ) on Thursday September 12, 2013 @05:17PM (#44834733)
    Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, by Charles Mackay

    Not only relevant but a must-read for any educated person....

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a rigged demo.