Going Viral: Is Social Media Making Us Sick?
The contagion on social media
A small town in the Midwest, terrorized by someone pumping poison gas into citizens’ homes under cover of night.
An outbreak of unexplained breathing problems and unusual rashes amongst teenagers in Portugal.
Over 60 workers in a factory in the South mysteriously overcome with numbness and vomiting.
These weren’t acts of terrorism. They weren’t the result of lax safety regulations. They weren’t the beginnings of a pandemic.
But they all had the same cause. And it’s the last thing you’d guess.
People — and when we say “people” we’re addressing the entire species — here’s some straight talk: We’re probably a little too high on ourselves.
Sure, we’re the most intelligent creatures on Earth. Nothing wrong with acknowledging that. But, if we’re being honest, most of us also think we’re even more rational than previous generations of our fellow humans.
And, ok, you can kind of see why…
After all, in medieval Europe, there were repeated instances of people — sometimes thousands of people — dancing uncontrollably for days or even weeks on end … for no apparent reason … sometimes not stopping until they died.i
In colonial America, Massachusetts practically tore itself apart after the strange behavior of a handful of young girls convinced the locals they were being tormented by witches.
Which, of course, is crazy…
…Everyone knows the witches are in New York. ii
(We did not make this up. Someone actually did this study.)
Anyway, you get the point: We’ve made progress. These days we’re too enlightened for those kinds of panics.
Or at least that’s what we like to tell ourselves.
But here’s the uncomfortable truth: Humans today aren’t any different. We’re just as susceptible to mass hysterias as those earlier generations.
The frantic dancers of medieval Europe and the troubled youths who inspired the Salem Witch trials are today classified as examples of something called Mass Psychogenic Illness,iii or MPI — conditions in which there’s what appears to be a mass outbreak of illness … yet no underlying medical problem.
And here’s the weirdest part about MPIs: They’re contagious.
Those gas attacks in the Midwest? They never happened. But in the 1940s, the residents of Mattoon, Illinois were convinced they did.
Just one local newspaper story in which a woman likely confused the symptoms of a panic attack with poison gas led another 24 households to claim similar attacks — despite the fact that police couldn’t find any evidence of a crime and doctors couldn’t find any evidence of illness.iv
And, tellingly, once coverage in the newspaper went from being sensationalistic to being skeptical … people stopped reporting the gassings.v
The factory workers in the South? They claimed they became ill due to bug bites. And while a few of them likely were bit by something, authorities eventually concluded that for most of the people involved the symptoms were actually the result of anxiety.vi
The kids in Portugal who were struggling to breath and had weird rashes? They just happened to be experiencing the exact same symptoms as the teenagers in a popular Portuguese soap opera at the time.vii
But do you notice anything weird here? These aren’t hypochondriacs. It’s not all in their heads, even if that’s where it starts. After all, you can’t fake a rash.
People who suffer a psychogenic illness have real symptoms. What they’re experiencing is the opposite of the placebo effect — it is, no joke, called the nocebo effect: The symptoms occur because they believe they’re sick.viii
These cases are most common amongst people who are isolated or under intense stress. And if they’re around other people with similar problems, it can snowball into a mass hysteria.
Weird enough for you? Hang on, it gets weirder.
In 2011, a small town in Western New York got national news attention when local high school students suddenly started shaking and stuttering uncontrollably. Erin Brockovich even came to town suggesting it might have been the result of a chemical spill from 40 years prior.ix
And because the outbreak wasn’t limited to a particular social group — these things usually are — it didn’t look like a conventional MPI at first. A middle-aged nurse who had nothing to do with the school even reported symptoms.
How? Because that nurse … was following the town’s news on Facebook.x
And that may be the future we’re looking at. In 2022, a team of German psychiatrists introduced a new concept: MSMI. “Mass Social Media-Induced Illness.”xi
The biggest example of this: A dramatic spike in recent years in the number of teenagers presenting with what appeared to be cases of Tourette syndrome.xii
One problem: Their behavior didn’t actually track with the symptoms of Tourette syndrome. What it did track with, however, was the behavior of some of the most popular Tourette syndrome influencers on YouTube and TikTok.xiii
And the researchers suggested that teenagers, battered by the isolation and anxiety of things like COVID lockdowns, were simply channeling their unwellness into the kinds of tics they were seeing modeled on social media.xiv
So … the bad news: Vulnerable people around the world — and we are all vulnerable people at some point — are now one mouse click away from genuine suffering — actual symptoms — all rooted in the power of suggestion.
But here’s the good news: When people suffering a psychogenic illness are told what’s happening, the symptoms tend to … disappear. The twitchy cheerleaders and the online Tourette syndrome cases? They got better.
All of which means we’ve got to be careful in the digital era.
Don’t fall too far down the social media rabbit hole.
Seek help if you’re experiencing the isolation and anxiety that can lead to these illnesses.
And whatever you do, for the love of God, please do not watch any Portuguese soap operas.
- “A Forgotten Plague: Making Sense of Dancing Mania” (John Waller) — The Lancet
- “2021’s Best Cities for Witches” (Sav Maive) — Lawn Love
- What Is Mass Psychogenic Illness? — American Family Physician
- “The ‘Phantom Anesthetist’ of Mattoon: A Field Study of Mass Hysteria” (Donald M. Johnson) — Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology
- Mass Psychogenic Illness: A Social Psychological Analysis — M. J. Colligan, J. W. Pennebaker, L. R. Murphy
- “How a Soap Opera Virus Felled Hundreds of Students in Portugal” (Lorraine Boissoneault) — Smithsonian Magazine
- “COVID-19 and the Political Economy of Mass Hysteria” (Philipp Bagus, José Antonio Peña-Ramos, Antonio Sánchez-Bayón) — International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health
- “Erin Brockovich: Research Into Upstate New York Tourette's Case Only Preliminary” (Kevin Dolak, Katie Kindelan, Linsey Davis, Katie Moisse) — ABC News
- “What Witchcraft Is Facebook?” (Laura Dimon) — The Atlantic
- “Stop That! It’s Not Tourette’s but a New Type of Mass Sociogenic Illness” (Kirsten R Müller-vahl, Anna Pisarenko, Ewgeni Jakubovski, Carolin Fremer) — Brain
Sound | Artlist: "Mechanical Black" (Yoed Nir), "Scavenger" (Notize), "Death Star" (2050) // Premium Beat: “Cyber Friends and Feelings” (MVMT Music), “Innovative Technologies” (Pavel Yudin), “From Another Planet” (Remember the Future), “Recercada Segunda” (Soul Driver), “A Simple Hook” (Evan MacDonald), "Willies and Trews" (Harpo Marks) // Pro Sound Cloud Library
Footage | University of Illinois: Donald M. Johnson // Instagram // Facebook // Twitter // Reuters // TVI // CNN // 60 Minutes Australia // Fox9 Minneapolis-St. Paul // Columbia Pictures: Black Rhino/Bernie Brillstein // Loren Coleman (Mysterious America, 1983; Myth or Real, 1994) // Jerry D. Coleman (Myth or Real, 1994) // British Library: Peraldus // Google Arts & Culture: Chester Beatty Library // University of Caen Normandie: The Bayeux Tapestry Scenes 23, 33-34, 57 // University of Heidelberg // Museum of the Vatican: Raphael // Library of Congress: Baker, Joseph E. // New York Public Library: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art // NPR: Rachel Otwell // Belt Magazine // Getty: Dmytro Buianskyi, Ramil Shakirov, Neustockimages, Panic_Attack, ALotOfPeople, Stockbyte, Bobbieo, George Marks, Gearstd, Piotr Marcinski / EyeEm, Drbimages, LightFieldStudios, BraunS, Chip Somodevilla / Staff, TonyBaggett, Simonkr, Solskin, Tara Moore, Taigashots, Viktoriia Makarova, Golubovy, Ctoelg, larrybraunphotography.com // Flickr: Walters Art Museum Illuminated Manuscripts, Yogurinhoa Borova // Pexels: Dan Christian Paduret, Tima Miroshnichenko, Ylanite Koppens // Unsplash: Jacques Bopp, Dhruv Mehra, Julien Maculan, CDC, National Cancer Institute, Alex Simpson, Timothy Dykes, Ricky Kharawala, Adam Currie, Fatty Corgi, Gasper Uhas, Alexander Londin, Obi - @pixel6propix, Daniel J. Schwarz, Wolfgang Hasselmann, Sincerely Media, Zach Vessels, Jake Nackos, Almos Bechtold, Tyler Nix, Ignacio Brosa, Vlad Khmara // Adobe Stock: Aekkorn // Vecteezy: Studiogstock, Ery Prihananto, Cottonbro, Poorna Chandra Ghanta, Majborodinruslan199023923 // Roman Lier // Silsor // Juan Martín de Pueyrredón // © MapTiler © OpenStreetMap contributors // CITED SOURCES AND NEWS OUTLETS ARE NOT AFFILIATED WITH AND HAVE NOT ENDORSED OR SPONSORED ANY PORTION OF THIS PRODUCTION.
- The Lancet
“A Forgotten Plague: Making Sense of Dancing Mania” (John Waller)
- Lawn Love
“2021’s Best Cities for Witches” (Sav Maive)
- American Family Physician
What Is Mass Psychogenic Illness?
- Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology
“The ‘Phantom Anesthetist’ of Mattoon: A Field Study of Mass Hysteria” (Donald M. Johnson)
- Mass Psychogenic Illness: A Social Psychological Analysis
Book by M. J. Colligan, J. W. Pennebaker, L. R. Murphy
- Smithsonian Magazine
“How a Soap Opera Virus Felled Hundreds of Students in Portugal” (Lorraine Boissoneault)
- International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health
“COVID-19 and the Political Economy of Mass Hysteria” (Philipp Bagus, José Antonio Peña-Ramos, Antonio Sánchez-Bayón)
- ABC News
“Erin Brockovich: Research Into Upstate New York Tourette's Case Only Preliminary” (Kevin Dolak, Katie Kindelan, Linsey Davis, Katie Moisse)
- The Atlantic
“What Witchcraft Is Facebook?” (Laura Dimon)
“Stop That! It’s Not Tourette’s but a New Type of Mass Sociogenic Illness” (Kirsten R Müller-vahl, Anna Pisarenko, Ewgeni Jakubovski, Carolin Fremer)
Learn more with a sampling of expert analysis and opinion from a wide variety of perspectives.
- “The Twitches That Spread on Social Media” (The Atlantic)
- “The Mystery of Mass Hysteria” (The New Yorker)
- “A Forgotten Plague: Making Sense of Dancing Mania” (The Lancet)
- “The Mad Gasser of Mattoon, Illinois” (Washington Post)
- “How a Soap Opera Virus Felled Hundreds of Students in Portugal” (Smithsonian)
- “Evidence Mounts That Mass Suggestion Caused “Havana Syndrome” (Psychology Today)