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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.