Dianthus Medical Blog Archive

Facebook does not give you syphilis

There is a beautiful aria in Rossini's opera "The Barber of Seville" called "La calunnia รจ un venticello". Watch it on YouTube here if you don't know it. It tells of how easy it is to start a rumour very gently and for the rumour then to take on a life of its own and get totally out of control.

It's apparently as true today as it was in Rossini's time.

The rumour is that using Facebook can give you syphilis. Let's look at how that came about. A week ago, NHS Tees issued a press release about a fourfold increase in the number of syphilis cases in their area. The press release includes the statement "Social networking sites are making it easier for people to meet up for casual sex." This may or may not be true, but doesn't seem to be backed up by any data whatsoever.

But never wanting to let facts get in the way of a good story, the headlines appearing in the newspapers yesterday were "Facebook 'linked to rise in syphilis'" and "Sex diseases soaring due to Facebook romps". Shocking. As all good grammar pedants know, that should be "Sex diseases soaring owing to Facebook romps".

But grammatical pedantry aside, where did Facebook come into it? That's not mentioned anywhere in the original press release. A cynic might point out that Facebook is the main competitor to MySpace, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, which by an amazing coincidence just happens also to own The Sun, one of the newspapers who made up the bit about Facebook being responsible.

Mainstream journalists can often be hideously sloppy when writing about health stories, and this seems to be a good example. There is no evidence whatsoever that the observed increase in syphilis cases, which is based on very small numbers (Rory Cellan-Jones at the BBC has done some good digging on the absolute numbers behind the story) has any causal relationship with social networking, and certainly not with Facebook.

Perhaps the best conclusion that can be drawn from this story is, as perceptively blogged by Enemies of Reason, "Telegraph 'linked with rise in fuckwittery'".

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