A New Zealand sociologist says social networking websites can
lead to mass global hysteria similar to the scale that took
hold of Salem in Massachusetts, in the late 1600's where 20
people were hanged during the infamous witch trials.
Auckland researcher Robert Bartholomew has warned a recent
surge in hysteria that now spreads through social media
websites, could take hold globally and cause social and
He pointed to an incident in January, coincidentally in that
same Salem, now called Danvers, in which about two dozen
teenagers at the Essex Agricultural and Technical School
began having mysterious hiccups and tics.
Dr Bartholomew told The Atlantic.com website there had been a
sudden upsurge of those types of outbreaks over the past few
It started with conversion disorder, when psychological
stressors, such as trauma or anxiety, manifested in physical
symptoms, he told the website.
The symptoms become "contagious" due to a phenomenon called
mass psychogenic illness (MPI), historically known as "mass
hysteria" because people unconsciously believe they've been
exposed to the same harmful toxin, then experience the same
"(There was) 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," Dr Bartholomew said.
Epidemics spread by social media were inevitable and it was
"just a matter of time before we see outbreaks that are not
just confined to a single school or factory or even region,
but covering a disperse geographical area and causing real
social and economic harm", he said.
Typically teenage girls or young women were susceptible to
the phenomenon, but it was not yet known why, Dr Bartholomew
Conflict for adolescent girls could be "very sordid" he said.
"With some of these girls, it gets really nasty, and (unlike
boys), girls hold it in.
"In the past, you have a problem with another girl at school
or a group of girls, you go home, you might make a phone
call. Now, you're talking to a whole bunch of people at once.
You brood and internalise it more deeply."
In his paper Mass Psychogenic Illness and the Social Network:
is it changing the pattern of outbreaks? Dr Bartholomew
wrote: "Local priests, who were inevitably summoned to
exorcise the 'demons', faced a daunting task given the
widespread belief in witchcraft, but they were fortunate in
one regard: they did not have to contend with mobile phones,
Twitter and Facebook."