9 Comments

Summary:

A British public health official has blamed Facebook for a rise in cases of syphilis, in the latest example of a wave of stories blaming social networks such as Twitter and Craigslist for most of the evils of mankind, regardless of a lack of evidence.

Hey, did you hear that Facebook causes syphilis? It must be true — I read it on the Internet. Or to be clear, I read it on some mainstream media sites that happened to publish their stories on the Internet. And people say the web and social media are filled with questionable facts and salacious rumors aimed at grabbing readers.

The fact is that no one can beat a tabloid newspaper when it comes to that kind of thing, and the British tabloids in particular are the undisputed kings and queens of the salacious rumor story, or the titillating conclusion balanced on the thinnest of factual foundations. Today’s exhibit is the “Facebook causes outbreak in syphilis” story, which started in the British papers and has spent the day gathering steam across the web and various social networks (“going viral” has never been a more appropriate metaphor).

As TechCrunch and others have pointed out, this story appears to be based on a single interview with a British public health official in Teeside — a former industrial region in the northeastern part of England — who happened to mention that he thought lots of young people were having unprotected sex with people they hooked up with through Facebook (or “Facebook romps,” as The Sun gleefully referred to them in its headline). And what was this based on? The fact that syphilis rates were much higher than they had been in the past, that several people surveyed said they had met their partners through Facebook, and that Facebook use is high in the area. As one commenter on the TechCrunch post noted, this breaches a cardinal rule of constructing a logical argument, which is that “correlation does not mean causation.” In other words, just because lots of left-handed people are gay does not mean that if you are left-handed you will be gay, or that gayness is caused by the same thing that causes left-handedness.

When the telephone first hit the mass market, did people start writing stories about how the phone causes death and heartache? Undoubtedly. It seems to be human nature to take whatever new social behavior or technology happens to be popular and associate that with everything bad that occurs — even if those bad things have been happening forever. And so we have the “Craigslist killer” stories (which carefully ignore the fact that people have been using telephones and even newspaper classifieds to find people to rob and kill for decades now), and the “Facebook rapist” stories, and on it goes.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user krazydad/jbum

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  1. Vadim Lavrusik Wednesday, March 24, 2010

    So glad you wrote this. Social networks don’t disease people, people disease people. I’ve been seeing a lot of misleading and blaming headlines from social media, which makes me question whether their bias and general resentment toward social media is showing through? (obviously I am generalizing).

  2. Vadim Lavrusik Wednesday, March 24, 2010

    Meant to say mainstream media, as the source of such headlines.

  3. I’m not sure if you misrepresented the article on purpose or simply misread it but I’ll give you the benefit of a doubt. It talks about “rising” and “resurgence” not direct causation (so your title is either a mistake or intentionally misleading). And no, it does not prove it but the problem with the sort of argument you are making is that it implies NO correlation just because none was properly found — that simply means we don’t know! Not that it’s not true, that it couldn’t be true… Quite possibly, Facebook may facilitate the spread of syphilis (and thus cause the observed “rise in syphilis” like the actual Telegraph title says) and Craigslist may well facilitate killings, as well as all sort of other crimes. Any casual peruser of craigslist would have to be seriously dimwitted not to realize there are plenty of illegal things listed and it is at best unclear that craigslist is doing what it should to prevent serious crimes.

    Delia

    1. Thanks for the comment, Delia. You are right about the Telegraph story being more nuanced, but I wasn’t just talking about that story. Other mainstream media concluded from the flimsy evidence that Facebook was directly responsible for the rise in syphilis cases. My point is that even if that were true, lots of other things are involved in the rise of STDs and various criminal activity — the fact that Facebook or Craigslist is implicated is no different than saying the telephone or the automobile was involved.

      1. you are welcome!

        Again, as far as I can see, you are only correct on the fact that based on the info presented we don’t know… not that there is no evidence (they listed plenty of it! it’s just not conclusive) or it couldn’t be the case that say, if Facebook went down for a significant length of time, the rates of siphilis would go down to a quarter of what they are while Facebook is operational, all other things being equal.

        And of course, you can never prove 100% that all other things were equal but the Telegraph article would have been much stronger if they would have shown that they checked for the other major things that could have caused the number to go up fourfold and none were found.

        Delia

        P.S. I’m not buying the argument that it’s like the phone or the automobile is somehow directly (physically) causing syphilis — how silly, that’s not what the argument is about at all… Although plenty of people have fallen for that and other of Craig Newmark’s ridiculous PR, that’s just a means of causing confusion and evading the problem: it’s distracting from the fact that the use of particular phones and/or automobiles (like the use of Facebook or craigslist) can easily cause an increase in serious crimes. And there are things that could and should be done about it.

        To stay with this analogy, most people don’t really doubt the fact that forbidding the use of the phone for texting while driving an automobile reduces vehicular manslaughter and putting this into law makes sense. It has nothing to do with the ridiculous argument that the phone and/or automobile are killing people… D.

    2. I think you’re still missing the point, Delia — no one is saying that Facebook actually causes syphilis, but they are saying that it is to blame for people getting syphilis, in the same way that people blame Craigslist for other people’s homes being broken into or whatever the case may be.

      But the reality is that the thing that is to blame for syphilis or murder or theft is human nature and human behaviour, not any particular tool or social networking site. All those things are is tools that can be used to further a specific kind of behaviour — they don’t cause it in any real sense, so it’s ridiculous to blame them for it.

      1. sorry about the delay…

        re: “no one is saying that Facebook actually causes syphilis, but they are saying that it is to blame for people getting syphilis, in the same way that people blame Craigslist for other people’s homes being broken into or whatever the case may be.”

        Matthew, as I said in my 1st comment:

        “Quite possibly, Facebook may facilitate the spread of syphilis (and thus cause the observed “rise in syphilis” like the actual Telegraph title says) and Craigslist may well facilitate killings, as well as all sort of other crimes.”

        this is the issue that needs to be addressed … but you can’t even get to it if you fall in the trap of Craig Newmark and similar and believe that regardless of what the facts show, facebook/craigslist/etc. just can’t have anything to do with the fourfold rise in syphislis, for instance… so all that’s left is to blame it all on “human nature” and watch all sort of ills go through the roof without even attempting to do anything about it!

        compare that with actually acknowledging what’s going on and taking measures to keep things under control — and it’s no trivial matter (peoples’ lives are often at stake!)

        Delia

        P.S. already said everything I had to say on this — take are! D.

  4. Facebook | Facebook Causes Syphilis and Craigslist Kills People – GigaOM « Christinereview's Weblog Thursday, March 25, 2010

    [...] Facebook | Facebook Causes Syphilis and Craigslist Kills People – GigaOM Posted on March 25, 2010 by christinereview Hey, did you hear that Facebook causes syphilis? It must be true — I read it on the Internet. Or to be clear, I read it on some mainstream media sites that happened to publish their stories on the Internet. And people say the web and Read more [...]

  5. Claudette Miller Thursday, October 21, 2010

    Just an FYI about the comment “going viral has never been a more appropriate metaphor”; actually this isn’t really appropriate as syphilis is caused by a bacterium not a virus.

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