Sounds like a lost Enid Blyton manuscript, doesn’t it? No, okay, maybe not. But it’s still a great story.
Some background first.
Gillian McKeith is a health guru of sorts, best known in the UK for presenting a wildly successful series of shows where she tells fat people to stop eating so much.
The most notorious part of the show (and the only thing some people find worth remembering about her) was the way she drew sweeping conclusions about her subjects’ dietary habits by examining their excrement.
Despite how trivial this may make her sound, she’s a major phenomenon of the alternative medicine movement in her own right. People really pay attention to this woman, and the breadth of topics on her official website makes it clear just how many pies she’s got her grubby, faecally tainted fingers in. (Is it too late to warn you to finish eating before you read this?)
Ben Goldacre, in his book Bad Science, devoted a chapter to Ms McKeith and related issues of medical importance. As well as highlighting her apparent confusion on certain points of basic science (eating high-chlorophyll greenery like spinach will not “oxygenate your blood”), he also examines the issue of Ms McKeith’s PhD, which she has used to justify referring to herself as “Dr”.
Her PhD is in “holistic nutrition”, and was obtained via a distance-learning programme from a non-accredited (meaning that it’s not formally recognised as having any real educational value) American college. On this basis, she had referred to herself as “Dr Gillian McKeith” on much of her output, but following a decision by the Advertising Standards Authority, she doesn’t do that any more.
That’s the background. Here’s the news.
On Wednesday, a lady named Rachel E. Moody tweeted her excitement about reading Bad Science, and almost being up to the chapter on – in her words – “Gillian McKeith. (not Phd)”.
The next day, in response to this, Rachel received four tweets sent her way, from the Twitter account @gillianmckeith. Rachel recounted the tweets in full here, and they’ve also been stored on FreezePage. Among other things, the operator of the @gillianmckeith account accuses Rachel of “anti-American bigotry”, and seems to assume that the sole problem she has with Ms McKeith’s doctorate is its Stateside origin.
It doesn’t seem that hard to understand the difference between actual qualifications from accredited universities, which allow you to do things like provide healthcare, and “diploma mills” not recognised by the Department of Education, which imply no level of expertise. That’s the problem people have with her PhD, not simply that it’s from America. But then, I wouldn’t even think that an enema would be a good cure for “pimples on the forehead”, so what do I know? (That’s one of Gillian’s. Bad Science, page 120.)
Anyway, more relevant than all that was this comment:
Miss Anti-American: How sad a life to enjoy reading lies about another by an ass who makes money from pharmaceutical giants
Now, calling Ben Goldacre an ass is perfectly legally defensible, and from someone like Gillian McKeith I imagine he’d wear such a label as a badge of honour. But calling the contents of his book “lies” is far less innocuous. That’s a direct and unequivocal accusation of dishonesty – rather more so, in fact, than the remark which lumped Simon Singh with a libel suit that took two years to go away.
So this was when people started to take notice.
And by “take notice”, I mean they used it as an excuse to take the piss out of Gillian McKeith all over Twitter.
And by “they”, I mean “we”.
There was nothing much to it at first. It was something that prompted people to remember who Gillian McKeith is and why she’s a terrible person, and it can be fun to bitch nostalgically about old enemies. I think #gillianmckeithhasnophd was a trending topic at one point. Dr Ben Goldacre (whose
PhD medical qualifications actually mean s something) asked her to retract her potentially libellous description of his book as “lies”, though there was never any suggestion of taking her to court over it. (We’re all tired of that kind of approach, from either side.)
And then a little bit later, @gillianmckeith’s Twitter feed looked like this.
The tweets direct at Rachel are gone. And there’s a sudden burst of excuses and justifications regarding Ms McKeith’s qualifications.
The two most noticeable things about this are: a) she’s started talking about herself in the third person, and b) she’s still carrying on the “anti-American” angle, apparently under the impression that her detractors must have a problem with Alabama or America, rather than with tacky diploma mills.
In response, we took the piss some more.
But then it got really fun.
The reason I linked to an image file there, rather than her Twitter feed itself, is because those tweets aren’t there any more. They vanished suddenly sometime this afternoon. As I write this, there are only two tweets visible from @gillianmckeith in the past few days. The first of these asks:
Do you actually believe this is real twitter site for the GM?
Ooh. However it turned out now, this was clearly going to be rather exciting.
Was it a spoof account, a parody, set up by some nobody trying to hijack some unearned internet fame? The account wasn’t verified by Twitter themselves, but it didn’t look to me the way fake or parody accounts tend to look. Her feed seemed mostly to consist of mundane personal tweets, the odd spot of self-promotion, and sharing or re-tweeting of links to the kind of health news you’d expect Gillian McKeith to share. She didn’t seem to be celebrity-baiting, or eagerly evangelising and vying for an audience, in the way I’ve often seen parodists do before. It seemed too low-key to be a hoax.
But if it was a genuine account, and she was now seemingly attempting to deny any connection between the Twitter account and Ms McKeith herself… then what the hell was going on?
It gets better.
If you go to Ms McKeith’s website, you won’t find any mentions of her Twitter account on the main page. But if you look in the source code, there’s a link to the very Twitter account in question, commented out. Here’s what that looks like.
(A quick aside for non-HTML geeks: When writing computer code, for a game or a website or whatever, most coding languages will let you insert “comments” into the code. These are short sections which you don’t want to actually do anything – the words won’t appear on the screen, the computer just ignores them. But it can be handy to describe what’s going on in the code, especially if it’s complex and if someone else might want to work on it later, or if you plan on coming back to it in the future, and you want to make sure it’s clear what all the lines of technical computer language are about. In the code for Ms McKeith’s website, there’s a Twitter link to @gillianmckeith, but it’s in the middle of a comment, so it’s not appearing on the page itself. This looks as if the link used to be on the page, but was then made inactive, without being totally deleted.)
Oh, and rather more conclusively, her last newsletter still has the link to her Twitter account.
It’s definitely her account. Gillian McKeith, or someone responsible for her web presence, made a desperate and futile attempt to backtrack after she said some stupid things, and much hilarity ensued.
Fun though this whole debacle has been, it’s not especially damning. The primary thing it showcases is simply a general failure to comprehend how the internet works. But it also rather strongly implies that the evidence regarding the claims she made is not on her side, seeing as she declined to present any and instead seems to have tried covering the whole thing up. And that’s worth noting. If I must be reminded of Gillian McKeith’s existence again, I’d much rather it be because she’s making a complete idiot out of herself.
Spreading the kudos and hat-tips:
ZenBuffy’s round-up was quicker and blunter than mine. It’s good to see BoingBoing firmly on the right side of this one. And I’ll update this post with links to forthcoming pieces by Jack of Kent and Dr Ben Goldacre when they’re available – those Twitter feeds are among the main hubs of gossip on this story, as those two have been at the fore of discussing it. Also, you can read a lengthy dissection of The Awful Poo Lady’s activities by Dr Ben here. Oh, and Tom Chivers at the Telegraph has a nice summary of all this too.
[Edit 14/07/10: Jack of Kent is already on the case. I completely agree with everything he says, and will borrow a couple of his lines here:
No defamatory meaning is implied by any of the above, and none should be inferred.
It is possible that Ms McKeith herself is blissfully unaware of what happened and will be horrified at what was done by those with contol over both her website and twitter account.]