by Pat Rich

Social media and the Internet have been widely praised for ushering in a new era of improved communications and networking. Through the Internet and a wide variety of social media tools and platforms, individuals have the opportunity to interact globally at levels previously unknown in human history.

Unfortunately, the widespread use of social media and the Internet has led to unprecedented levels of bad behavior (spamming, flaming, trolling … you name it) and appears to be threatening long-cherished literary forms such as satire.

Two examples taken from the new year in the field of science and medicine demonstrate what I am talking about.

The first example comes in the form of a reasonably recent but now well-established form of satire – the fictitious clinical trial.

As detailed in an Ottawa Citizen newspaper article published Jan. 5, the Journal for Evaluation in Clinical Practice recently published an study entitled “Maternal kisses are not effective in alleviating minor childhood injuries (boo-boos): a randomized controlled and blinded study.”

According to the trial report, the study was conducted in Ottawa and involved giving young children minor injuries to test whether kissing the injured site prompted children to recover more quickly.

While the very premise of the study and other elements clearly signalled its satirical nature, according to the Citizen article many online news outlets reported it as a legitimate study, and this generated a great deal of outrage on social media as to the triviality of the study and, doubtless, the callousness of the researchers.

The second example started life with the publication of plans for a session at the annual scientific meeting of the Tasmanian-Victorian section of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists titled “Debate: Membership before Maternity Leave: Should Every Registrar have a Mirena.” Registrars are specialists in residency training and Mirena is a form of long-term contraception.

A report of the plans for the session appeared in an Australian medical newspaper and the organization was quickly condemned on Twitter by physicians and others who felt the session was extremely sexist and hugely inappropriate.

.In its response to the controversy the parent body for RANZCOG stated, “The Organising Committee was very surprised that some have taken the facetious wording of the debate literally. The intent of the provocative title was to attract attention in a manner that was so ridiculous that it could not be misinterpreted as being in any way advocated.”

Both these examples show how quickly the Internet and social media sources can rightly or wrongly latch onto an apparent injustice and spread outrage globally far more quickly than any coherent response.

Satire can be a sensitive flower when taken from its natural environment and that’s what makes it so vulnerable in the world of global instant communication. We can well imagine the regular readers of the Journal for Evaluation in Clinical Practice chuckling in their cozy armchairs upon reading about the boo-boo study. Ditto for the predominately female organizers who came up with the RANZCOG session and the localized audience who would be the target for the conference program.

But in both instances, the Internet and social media disseminated information far beyond its intended audiences and hence the trail of misinterpretation and outrage.

It’s enough to stop laughter dead in its tracks.

Photo credit: Luc De Leeuw Puppets #13 Political Satire