From Daily Telegraph blogs, 28 September 2012 (words by Damian Thompson). This appeared on page 26 of the main edition and online.
The article you’re about to read will almost certainly be referred to the Press Complaints Commission. I’ll explain why later. Anyway, here goes.
This week I noticed that the Telegraph’s medical columnist, Dr Max Pemberton, was being horribly slagged off on Twitter. His crime? He’d commented on the fact that scientists at Columbia University had found no evidence that two specific viruses were linked to ME, which Max described (choosing his words carefully) as “the condition characterised by extreme fatigue and muscle pain”.
The Columbia finding was a terrible blow to many ME sufferers, who hoped that these viruses were the Holy Grail of a biological cause for their illness. But, as Max explained, it wasn’t widely reported because medical journalists are frightened of the militant wing of the ME lobby.
The previous time Max wrote about ME, presenting the majority view of scientists who think the condition has a psychological component, he was targeted by people displaying what he calls “an astounding degree of paranoia and obsession”. Every article about ME provokes complaints to the PCC, but in his case those were just the start. Sinister threats and photos of Max’s home were posted online.
This is a tricky subject for me, because a colleague has been diagnosed with ME. He’s seriously ill: the breakdown of one part of his body after another cannot be explained by psychosomatic fatigue. On the other hand, I suspect that his condition has only been described as ME because doctors haven’t pinned down what’s going on.
In contrast, medical science has no great difficulty explaining what’s wrong with most people diagnosed, or self-diagnosed, with ME. Their brains create a debilitating fatigue and pain that often correlates with certain personality traits. For example, there’s an overlap between ME and eating disorders.
Once you start talking about overlaps you’re in dangerous territory. In 1997, the feminist historian Elaine Showalter wrote a brave and brilliant book called Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture. She suggested that “psychogenic diseases” such as ME and Gulf War Syndrome had something in common with the confabulated memories of “Ritual Satanic Abuse” and alien abduction.
Showalter was vilified for joining the dots between mysterious spasms of anxiety – but imagine the vicious treatment she’d receive if she’d written Hystories in the age of Twitter. As the internet sceptic Evgeny Morozov argues, social media have “overmobilised” lobby groups, whether they’re Russian neofascists, climate change activists or medical conspiracy theorists.
You might say that the internet is simply enabling the free association of like-minded people. But ask yourself what like-minded people do when they connect online. They gang up on “the enemy”, whether it be a scientist exploding the myths of homeopathy or supporters of a rival football team.
In other words, much of the Twitter “conversation” is more concerned with shouting people down than opening up debate. Also, a lot of that shouting-down is organised and coordinated with an eye to twisting politicians’ arms and feeding narratives to right-on media.
We’ll see how this plays out. But overmobilising is already damaging the very people it’s meant to help. Doctors used to regard chronic fatigue as an exciting field of research. No longer. Why? Because, to quote one of them, “it’s safer to insult the Prophet Mohammed than to contradict the armed wing of the ME brigade”.