Skeptics or Cyberbullies?

by endlesspsych

By Keir Liddle

There has been an interesting trend growing among certain online celebs, bloggers and journalists, which is to respond to critiques of their work or comments disagreeing with them with allegations of cyberbullying. Some have more veracity to their claims than others (Toby Young of the Spectator for one) but many of these claims of cyberbullying seem frivolous at best; nothing more than invoking the term in order to denigrate the opinions of those who disagree with some point the journalist has made.

Christine Odone provides a perfect example of this phenomenon. She wrote and published an article earlier this year that proclaimed Dr Evan Harris “Dr Death“, and misrepresented his views on euthanasia and abortion– the article basically amounting to a misguided broadside on secularism. This raised hackles, and the article soon found itself disseminated at speed around Twitter. This led to an increase in commenters finding their way to Odone’s article to disagree with her: some forcefully, but the majority reasonably and politely. This mass disagreement with her point of view led her to proclaim that this was an intolerant attempt to silence her, and tantamount to cyberbullying.

“Although I’ve been a commentator for years, I’m new to blogging. So it’s come as a bit of a shock to discover that everything I write that is even mildly critical of the Lib Dem sacred cows, Nick Clegg and Dr Evan Harris, provokes instant, ferocious and unchecked response.”

“There’s no room in the Lib-Labs’ intolerant culture for discussion. An attack on any principle – say, changes to abortion legislation – is an attack on all their agenda.”

The result of Odone’s follow up blog was somewhat counterproductive, giving rise to the #spookyposse hashtag on Twitter and much more discussion and debate of her position; much of which, it must be said, did disagree with her – but did so (for the most part) politely, and without resorting to the nastiness implied by Odone.

There was also the much publicised case of Jan Moir, who claimed the reaction to her odious and probably homophobic insinuations that Stephen Gately died an “unnatural death” was some sort of orchestrated campaign specifically against her.

Despite Toby Young being the journalist who has probably the best case for cyberbullying, he also provides the most reasoned response:

The disappointing conclusion I’ve come to is that I can’t legitimately claim to be the victim of cyber-bullying. I’ve just been ‘flamed’ on Twitter, in much the same way that Jan Moir was when she wrote her notorious Daily Mail column about Stephen Gately. Perhaps if I was a private individual, like the poor boy who got ‘flamed’ after daring to say Stephen Fry was a bit boring, I might have grounds for complaint. But as a journalist I’ve just got to take it on the chin. So fire away, Miss Moran. And, please, try not to be so funny.

Supernatural skeptic, and Righteous Indignation host, Hayley Stevens is a skeptic who has been on the receiving end of accusations of bullying, and there are many other examples dotted around the web. I had intended originally to write this blog about some of those; however, I recently found myself embroiled in a similar situation.

I recently caused something of a Twitter storm with the hashtag #gillianmckeithhasnophd – which has also raised accusations of bullying, and led to hurried attempts by someone (possibly McKeith, possible her PR team or webmonkeys) to attempt to claim the Twitter account was never the awful poo lady’s in the first place , despite being linked to from her official website… For the most part, I think that the hashtag started off admirably – without getting personal or offensive. It met the objective set when I tiredly tweeted it during my morning commute, which was to show solidarity with the random tweeter who McKeith (or whoever ran the Twitter account) found during a vanity search and essentially started throwing around accusations that to suggest her “PhD” from a non-accredited US diploma mill was equivalent to her not having a PhD was “anti-American bigotry”, and additionally, claimed that Ben Goldacre had lied in his Bad Science book, in which he dedicates a chapter to this.

You can see more on the matter here, here, here, and it even made it onto the Guardian’s site. If you are interested in the ins and outs of the Poo-hD farrago, you can read Ben Goldacre’s take on the status of McKeiths PhD (from 2007) here.

This has lead to accusations of bullying and mumblings about a failure to engage, which I feel (as the originator of this particular meme) I should perhaps attempt to address. I don’t feel that the majority of tweets related to McKeith having no PhD qualify as bullying – some are robust. As the meme gathered pace, I do think that some lines were perhaps crossed. If all that is required for something to qualify as bullying is for a group of people to criticise someone else for claiming a qualification which they have no valid grounds, in my opinion, to claim, then that is a sad state of affairs. One wonders how we, as skeptics, could confront any peddler of snake oil, particularly a litigious multi-millionaire, if this is the case.

Certainly, I can see why people have come to this conclusion. I myself find the sheer number of people now commenting on the issue mind-boggling, so I could see how it could be construed as “bullying”. However, I believe that the criticism is valid, and McKeith did deserve to be called out on her bullying of a random tweeter. I will confess however that some of the later tweets, with reference to her as “hag-like”, for example, were not in the spirit of the attempt to get #gillianmckeithhasnophd to trend in the first place, and gave me pause to consider what sort of beast I had unleashed.

On the subject of engagement, I would say that there was probably little point engaging with McKeith about issues related to her PhD or her research (as her tweets before they were deleted indicate). Indeed ,a few individuals did try to get McKeith to answer questions relating to her “research” during the course of the debacle unfolding. I would suppose that those who say that there was little attempt at engagement are correct, however, though I would question if engagement is really what is needed in this case.

I don’t think McKeith, like so many of her woo peers (Dana Ullman comes to mind), would actually engage with questions about her research. I also doubt whether she would be able to do so in a meaningful way, given that she doesn’t have a degree in science or nutrition from a recognised or accredited source, but rather, has a degree in Lingustics and a Masters in International relations.

My justification for starting and encouraging the hashtag remains the same: Gillian (or someone connected to her website at the least) attacked someone and she deserved to be called on that. However, the response has now become disproportionate, and I think a good move all round would be to encourage people to use the spotlight currently on McKeith to ask questions of her about her “research”.