Twitter Mob: Don't Blame the Users

Thursday, 17th July 2014

How lobbies have turned consumer groups into victims

Twitter does not exactly lend itself to critical analysis. I doubt many people have changed their minds on anything after reading a mere 140 character tweet. Such short messages tend to reinforce existing prejudices and opinions and often build on concerted advertising and awareness-raising campaigns. You can tweet a link to an article, but usually only those sympathetic to your cause will read it. Twitter also encourages conformity as nobody wants to be unpopular or offend their virtual friends. It’s fine to support widely publicised causes, but not to voice views that others may easily misinterpret. When issues are simplified, many will readily interpret any divergence from the mainstream view as an act of tribal betrayal, like a crowd of Glasgow Rangers supporters spotting a loner wearing a Celtic scarf.

As I often take nonconformist stances, I've grown used to the devious tactics employed by seasoned opinion leaders, such as dismissing any embarrassing evidence against their case as mere conspiracy theories. However, another very effective tactic is to champion the rights of consumer groups to consume the very product or service that some dissident suggests may harm them.

By this logic, nobody could have ever exposed the harmful effects of cigarette smoking simply because millions of consumers enjoyed, or rather believed they enjoyed, this product. Smoking relieves stress and helps people befriend other smokers. It often serves as a great socialising tool and an act of defiance against an increasingly invasive nanny state. Indeed there is much evidence suggesting nicotine acts as an antidepressant, which might explain why so many smokers find it so hard to quit. This vice may be a little outmoded today, but fifty years ago non-smokers had to tolerate smokers at work, in their extended family, neighbourhood and in many public spaces like pubs, cafés and public transport. Some would complain, but generally had to keep quiet in many everyday social situations. Indeed some would have to claim to suffer from a special medical condition to persuade a friend to refrain from smoking in their presence. Yet as evidence mounted that smoking has all sorts of nasty side effects, smokers began to quit and non-smokers became much more proactive in reclaiming smoke-free areas. More recently smokers have been turned into outcasts, often having to escape outdoors in cold rainy days to indulge in their filthy habit.

Fast forward to the 21st century and antidepressants are not only a multi-billion pound industry, just as tobacco was, but they are actively endorsed by celebrities and state-sponsored healthcare institutions as the primary treatment for the growing number of people who feel stressed or depressed. Yet as smokers, alcoholics and recreational drug users know, mind-altering chemicals may offer you a temporary escape from your melancholy, but they come at a huge price in terms of long-term ill-health and some rather unpleasant neuro-psychological side effects. This change of public opinion, from the largely psycho-social model of emotional distress to the mainly biological model, is largely the result of a four decade long campaign to associate in the public mind a chemical imbalance with people’s nonfunctional states of mind. Human feelings have been medicalised, although there remains scant proof of a link between natural serotonin levels and state of mind. Many substances we ingest can affect our natural mood-regulating compounds (serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine). It should come as little surprise that many diagnosed with clinical depression, anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, OCD etc.., have a bad diet and have indulged in booze and other recreational drugs. Often bad lifestyle choices arise from a downward spiral of emotional insecurity and a tendency to seek solace in anything that turns your mind away from the immediate cause of distress. As our expectations for higher material goods and personal achievements grow, so does our sense of inadequacy and isolation, when we fail to reach these goals. We are not all blessed with perfect athletic bodies, excellent hand-eye coordination and extraordinary musical talent. We will not all be premier league footballers, Olympic medalists, world-famous pop singers, TV celebrities or fashion models. Most of us are fairly average with relative strengths and weaknesses, but our current obsession with status symbols turns minor personal deficits into medical conditions that require treatment. How personality traits develop has long eluded neurologists. Why are some people so gregarious with an upbeat and ebullient disposition, while others have a more reclusive, independent and sobre character and tend to reflect on events and observations in greater detail? If worrying about things were so bad, then why would such instincts evolve in the first place? In essence worrying is about caring about yourself and loved ones. If we didn't worry about anything, we would lack motivation to try harder. Most creative types need plenty of time for introspection. As we obsess more with image and social networking, detailed analysis can fall by the wayside. While some may be enhancing their social status through better presentation and socialisation, others prefer to build a better life through hard work and contemplation. However, in the age of industrial automation and outsourcing, many lack the motivation to make or even repair things themselves. In today's perverse world, a non-productive lawyer not only earns more than her cleaner, but also more her car mechanic and all the other manual workers who helped make her lifestyle possible. Yet many higher-earning professionals in the burgeoning hot-air sector succumb to work-related stress and even depression.
There may be a good argument for short-term medication to wean people off junk food and booze or simply to get the out of bed in the morning, but little evidence that the any pre-existing chemical imbalance caused them to make bad lifestyle choices. Millions now believe antidepressants are essential medication for anyone whose relative lack of cheerfulness or bad moods cause others so much distress. We have thus wished away the underlying causes of depression in our incessant drive to promote mandatory bubbliness, i.e. where we all feign happiness through fake smiles and frequent giggles ? Casual observations would suggest offices have been transformed from relatively sombre places of work into comedy workshops. 50 years of TV satire and now endless YouTube gags have had their effect on the collective psyche. Yet, we are not all born actors. If you fail to take part in mandatory amateur theatrics, your jovial teammates will soon write you off as a loner. Whereas 50 years ago a lack of practical skills could prove a handicap in all but the most privileged families, today it is a perceived lack of social skills that sets many at a distinct disadvantage. Social anxiety, here in its literal non-psychiatric sense, is a prime cause of social alienation, leading to a lack of self-worth, a sense of inferiority and inevitably melancholy.

Handing out free antidepressants to address social alienation is like distributing morphine tablets to combat tooth decay. They may temporarily alleviate unpleasant symptoms, but they fail to address the root causes of the problem and may have very nasty adverse effects with prolonged use. Suggesting that opposing state-subsidised mass-medication of unhappiness offends the unhappy is like accusing an opponent of hydraulic fracturing of condemning the elderly to freezing homes in winter (the elderly would be the first to suffer from polluted tap water). These quick fixes are simply not the solution.

For more on this theme may I recommend Anatomy of an Epidemic by Robert Whitaker .

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