More Trouble with Dr Jessen

A few weeks ago I blogged about getting twitterstormed by Dr Christian Jessen, presenter of the TV shows Embarrassing Bodies and Supersize vs Superskinny, after I asked him to be a bit more polite when talking to an eating disorder survivor. One problem with Twitter is the way a one-on-one argument can quickly be turned into a public affair simply by retweeting or by sticking text in front of somebody’s @ ID, thereby inviting any passerby to pile-in.

If the tweeter involved has a large following, then this can turn into a deluge of abusive messages. This happened yesterday when a famous comedian made an ill-advised joke about self-harm. Somebody with a history of self-harm sent him an angry tweet in response to this. He then responded in turn by retweeting her, with the result that she then received a stream of hostile tweets from his fans that lasted for 11 hours. To be fair to the comedian, she did swear at him, and he did later un-retweet her and ask his fans to stop, but by then the damage was done.

It’s a particularly rum business when this sort of thing involves health professionals. The various regulators (e.g. General Medical Council, Nursing and Midwifery Council etc) have made it clear they expect professionals to behave themselves on social media, and I’m sure bombarding people with abuse is something they expect us not to do.

A couple of weeks after I had my own run-in with Dr Jessen, it seems another Twitter user took issue with his online behaviour.


One thing that tends to come with a large Twitter following is a fair amount of grief from people lining up to have a go at someone, and if would be fair to say that Dr Jessen is no exception to that. However, it’s also fair to say that the person here was being strongly critical, but not abusive or insulting.

So, how did Dr Jessen respond?


Yep, he reposted her message with “UTTER ROT” before it, thereby rebroadcasting it to his 236,000 followers. To put that into perspective, the daily circulation of the Guardian is 204,000. In old media terms, this would be the equivalent of sticking someone’s comments in a national newspaper with a comment of, “Look what this person said about me!” and putting their phone number at the end.

The result, predictably, was that she got several hours of abuse from Dr Jessen’s fans.  This seems to be something of a habit for him.


What does the GMC social media guidance say?

You must not bully, harass or make gratuitous, unsubstantiated or unsustainable comments about individuals online.



The trouble with Dr Jessen

In the last couple of weeks the Royal College of General Practitioners published their Social Media Highway Code. As a professional with a longstanding interest in how social media can be used constructively in mental health, I’ve often been disappointed that most guidance being issued tends to focus only on the negatives and risks of this new form of communication. The Highway Code is a welcome antidote to that: it acknowledges the risks and and the need to behave online in a professional way. However, it also recognises that social media has rewards and opportunities. I highly recommend it not only to doctors but to all health professionals.

Which makes it unfortunate that today I got caught up in the absolutely atrocious online behaviour of a doctor. A TV doctor, no less.

I don’t actually watch the TV show Supersize vs Superskinny, hosted by Dr Christian Jessen. I work with children and adolescents with eating disorders, and watching a show about it feels a little like taking my work home with me. I know that some people with eating disorders have complained of experiencing triggers from the show.

Ilona Burton is a journalist who writes for the Independent about eating disorders. She writes passionaately and well about the subject, not least because she’s in recovery from an eating disorder herself. In 2012 she was nominated for the Mark Hanson Award for Digital Media in the Mind Media Awards. She also holds strong views about the content of Supersize vs Superskinny, which she regards as socially irresponsible.

Early today, an increasingly heated debate was building between Dr Jessen and Ilona.

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Dr Jessen then started retweeting Ilona to his 222,000 followers. The result was that Ilona started receiving tweets from Dr Jessen’s fans, some of them abusive. Ilona was clearly distressed by this, which really didn’t seem to concern Dr Jessen. For that reason I threw my own tuppence into the ring.


I also tweeted him a link to the RCGP Social Media Highway Code, and suggested he pay attention to Section 7, “Treat Others with Consideration, Politeness and Respect.” He didn’t reply directly, but responded by retweeting me.


The result was that I too started getting a large volume of tweets, which quickly turned into a Twitterstorm. As with the content being aimed at Ilona, some of the tweets I received were also hostile or downright abusive. It went on and on, lasting for several hours. This wasn’t helped by Dr Jessen retweeting more of my responses.



Okay, maybe that last tweet by me was a little tetchy, but getting several hours of online abuse does that to me.

I’m a fairly opinionated tweeter, so I’m no stranger to getting hostile messages. I’ve had some nasty stuff thrown my way by supporters of UKIP, and also by people who object to the work of child protections services. I can honestly say that today was the worst and most intense level of trolling I’ve ever been subjected to.

I don’t feel I need any sympathy for that. I’m big enough and ugly enough to handle it. However, I’m saddened that it happened at the instigation of a fellow healthcare professional. I’m even more saddened that the brunt of it was also caught by someone who has lived experience of one of the very conditions that Dr Jessen talks about in his show.

Dr Jessen seems rather unrepentant about all this.


What does the Social Media Highway Code say?

You have a right to express your views openly–but not to do so in a way that causes offence to others or infringes on their own rights….

When part of an online group, don’t be tempted into joining others in making derogatory comments or ‘ganging up’ on another individual – this behaviour could be regarded as ‘cyber-bullying’. Be wary of the power of the mob…

HEALTH WARNING: making derogatory,threatening or defamatory comments about others could have a harmful effect on your career. ‘I was just blowing off steam’ may be an honest explanation, but is not likely to be accepted as a valid justification by professional bodies or employers.

I hope Dr Jessen takes up my suggestion of reading the Highway Code.

Meanwhile, Ilona has posted her own thoughts on the matter in a vlog.