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Mass Social-Media Induced-Illness: A Viral Epidemic

Lilith holds bachelor's degrees in anthropolgy and history. She enjoys exploring historical peculiarities through research and writing.


If you are a conscious human person with even the slimmest connection to reality, that noggin of yours has withstood some heavy anxiety since the world derailed in early 2020; it has yet to navigate its way back onto its cosmic tracks. If your nerves aren’t hanging on by a frayed thread because of the incessant threat of contracting COVID, an unstable economy, egregious social injustices, insert your personal calamity here, then who are you and how?

The baseline of existence at the moment is basically a state of general unease, and said unease can manifest in multitudinous ways: insomnia, depression, headache, fatigue, chest pain, and oh, I don’t know, mass psychogenic illness transmitted via social media?

First, a Quick Anecdote

Now part of modern-day France, Strasbourg was going through it during the 1500s. The socio-economic landscape and the landscape in and of itself was dismal. If the fine people of the then-Holy Roman Empire weren’t already ruined by infectious diseases like syphilis and smallpox, then the uncommonly cold temperatures and incessant floods made damn-well sure that citizens felt every blow that famine had to deliver. Add onto these stressors a smattering of deep-rooted political tensions, civil unrest (peasant rebellions to the max), as well as apocalyptic omens (those comets don’t usually awaken hopes of great tidings in the clergy) for optimal mental devastation. The outcome? Dancing plagues, the most documented of which occured in 1518.

Patient 0 appears (as per historical record…grain of salt…you know the deal) to have been a Frau Troffea, who unexpectedly began cutting a rug in the streets without rest for six days. What started with one rapidly spread among the masses in epidemic proportions; at one point, at least 400 denizens of Strasbourg maniacally flung their limbs in semblances of dance. For a premise that could easily serve as a plotline for a South Park episode, things got dark right quick. People danced without heeding their need for sleep or hydration. A number forced their bodies so far beyond the brink of exertion that they experienced a range of injuries, some of which proved fatal.

Contemporary doctors, theologians, and other higher ups were like: “Yeah, those people going berserk out on the streets are 5,000% possessed. They have clearly, without any reasonable doubt, been cursed. Sucks for them. That’ll do it boys…case closed!” The illness was viewed as divine punishment, therefore relegating treatment to the church. The treatment? Public absolutions, visitations to holy shrines, saintly interventions, and so on.

Hundreds of years later, we have modern historians, cue John Waller, for one, who posit an alternate theory: mass psychogenic illness (MPI), also known demeaningly as mass hysteria or epidemic hysteria. It has existed among many cultural, ethnic, and religious groups across the globe for the better part of history.


Mass-Psychogenic Illness

MPI is when people (usually an isolated group) become physically afflicted with demonstrable symptoms without any source of origin. Children and adolescents, particularly young women, experience this more than any other demographic. Symptoms manifest rapidly, and recovery occurs just as fast. Many MPIs are triggered by something environmental: an odd smell or a Facebook post about a poison exposure.

The life-cycle of MPI is fairly straightforward. An individual, frequently someone who is highly regarded in an afflicted group, becomes ill. As we now know all too well (thanks again, COVID), if someone in a small-knit community becomes sick, anxiety rears its nasty head. In the instance of MPI, that anxiety devises symptoms that culminate in another person falling ill. And then another. And another.

Symptoms can be psychological, wherein an individual may experience headaches, shortness of breath, dizziness, and/or other symptoms stemming from anxiety. Motor issues can also present themselves; people may endure some degree of paralysis or particular behaviors associated with seizures (dancing plague, anyone?).

In most documented cases (I will drop a few more below), the symptoms of a MPI dissipate after some time. At times, the event concluded because a doctor or scientist reassured those in distress that the particular smell, for instance, was proven not to be toxic. Still, not all incidents of MPI are mild and pass in a reasonable amount of time; at times, unremitting stress can lead to something rather volatile, like an intermittent period of witch hunts, concerning hundreds or thousands of people.

Here are a couple more instances of MPI to showcase the various cultural/environmental settings, spectrum of triggers, but generally standard cyclical nature of the phenomenon.

  • In 1787, at a Lancashire cotton mill, a woman was spooked by a rodent to such a severe extent that she suffered a “fit” -for lack of a better term- for hours after the fact. Over the next few days, her coworkers as well as workers at a factory a few miles away from the mill, succumbed to episodes similar to hers. 24 people were affected in all and cured immediately upon being reassured by an authority figure that there was nothing present in the mill or factory to account for their symptoms.
  • Belgian students reportedly became ill after consuming Coca-Cola products in 1999. Complaints (headache, nausea, and other constitutional symptoms) with subsequent hospitalizations first occurred at one school, but quickly spread to others. The National Poison Centre became involved, as did the mass media; Coca-Cola recalled $250 million worth of product prior to analyses of the concerned product revealing the absence of any chemicals or other substances that could be responsible for the outbreak of illnesses.
  • In 2012, about 20 girls, all of whom attended the same high school in Leroy, New York developed involuntary tics and spasms, which the community soon attributed to environmental causes. Advocacy groups demanded answers from those in authority beyond local media, taking their cries for accountability to the internet. Nevertheless, not even a team assembled by the famed environmental advocate Erin Brockovich could find any hint of dangerous toxins in the surrounding area, and soon after all involved persons improved.
Jan Zimmermann: You-Tube Content Creator

Jan Zimmermann: You-Tube Content Creator

MPI Goes Viral

Remember my glowing review of the state of the world that introduced this article? Yeah, you see where I’m going with this. Our dumpster-fire reality is ideal for a mass psychogenic illness, and our technology serves as a medium through which we can one-up historical incidents and spread an MPI far beyond a remote group. Oh yeah, and it’s already totally happening. Friends, we now live in an unprecedented era of mass social-media-induced illness (MSMI).

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According to research conducted at the Hannover University Medical School, there has been a recent surge of videos on various social media platforms wherein people are claiming to have Tourette’s syndrome, “…a neurological disorder characterized by sudden, repetitive, rapid, and unwanted movements or vocal sounds” (NIH).

The beginnings of this virtual epidemic lie with Jan Zimmermann, who launched his YouTube channel, “Gewitter im Kopf” (“Thunderstorm in the Brain/Head”), in 2019. In his videos, it is clearly discernible that Zimmermann is suffering from a milder variety of Tourette’s, but researchers who studied his content argue that his symptoms appear exaggerated; it was unclear if the exaggeration was intentional.

Hundreds of videos, millions of subscribers, and a merch-line based on Zimmermann’s many behavioral and vocal tics later, it became apparent to researchers that there was an influx of Tourette’s cases among young patients referred to the University of Hannover’s specialized clinic. Many of these cases almost perfectly mimicked symptoms -both physical and vocal- displayed by Zimmerman on-screen. The patients were disruptive in school and home and openly admitted that symptoms helped them avoid responsibility/accountability; this admission was emphasized by the fact that the “symptoms” went into remission whenever they were in an environment or situation that appealed to them.

It soon became apparent that these new patients, who insisted on a Tourette’s diagnosis, did not meet the parameters required for a case to be deemed valid. The onset of the ailment was too sudden, symptoms far too excessive and wide-ranging, and all behavioral as well as vocal tics were *poof* gone once a doctor nixed the diagnosis.

It was a case of mass psychogenic illness, but on a whole ‘nother level.

The Takeaway

So, there you have it! Out of the millions who had to forsake their social lives in the physical realm during the pandemic, a number of younger individuals have, whether due to the power of suggestion or level of susceptibility, developed a condition contracted via social media. And seeing that mass psychogenic illness has historically proven to have some heavy staying-power, I think it is fair to assume that the virtual, more far-reaching iteration of MPI, which will naturally evolve beyond Tourette's, is here for the long haul as well.


What I Read

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Lilith Eden

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