Syphilis - The Facebook Plague?

The newspapers like their Facebook panics. A couple of weeks ago it was Peter Chapman, dubbed the "Facebook killer" because he had befriended his victim via the social networking site. Then the Daily Mail introduced a story about a criminologist who had posed as a teenage girl on a different site altogether to attract the attention of paedophiles with the headline "I posed as a girl of 14 on Facebook". Facebook threatened to sue. The latest story is all about how Facebook gives you syphilis.

According to Professor Peter Kelly, who is director of public health in Teesside, there has been a "fourfold increase" in cases of syphilis. Furthermore, when looking at the statistics he "saw that several of the people had met sexual partners through these sites." Finally, according to the Mail's version of the story, "Research has shown that young people in Sunderland, Durham and Teesside were 25 per cent more likely to log onto social networking sites than those in the rest of Britain." Sunderland, indeed, was described in a recent BBC documentary as "the Facebook capital of Britain."

Put all these facts together and what do you get? The reemergence of the scourge of 19th century artists and courtesans as the new Facebook Plague.

The story doesn't seem to be based on actual research, merely an off-the-cuff observation by Prof. Kelly which appears in a press release from NHS Middlesborough. The statement - headed "Warning as syphilis cases increase" - doesn't mention Facebook by name. All Prof. Kelly actually said was this:

Unprotected sex, especially with casual partners, is the biggest risk for syphilis. Social networking sites are making it easier for people to meet up for casual sex.

Somewhere along the line, someone has spotted a coincidence between the location of Prof. Kelly's office and research about social network usage in various parts of the country and thought, Aha! Facebook=syphilis=great story! But, as is so often the case, the story vanishes if you try to substantiate it. For it to be even potentially valid, at the very least there would have to be a correlation between disease prevalance and use of social networking sites in various parts of the country. So far as I can see, there isn't.

Nowhere can I find any basis for an assumption that syphilis is more prevalent in the North East than in other regions. The national statistics for 2009 show a gradual decrease in syphilis over the past four years from a high in 2005 - the very period during which social networking websites have taken off - and a more dramatic decrease in gonorrhoea since 2001. Set against these there have been large increases in chlamydia and herpes (in part because greater awareness has prompted more people to get themselves tested for sexually transmitted infections). The regional figures are varied. Highest by far is London, with more than ten cases of syphilis per 100,000 of the population and 294 for chlamydia. In the North East the infection rates are, respectively, 3.7 and 225. The North West has higher figures for both conditions, along with lower Facebook use.

So no, Facebook does not cause syphilis. If there is a link between social websites and STDs, it is more likely to be sex-focused dating sites that are to blame. And even there, as Debby Herbenick points out, if social networking makes it easier to find casual partners, it also facilitates the process of warning them afterwards if you find yourself infected - thus potentially reducing the spread of conditions such as syphilis. Furthermore, the internet can "make it easier for public health professionals to track a burgeoning epidemic and stop it before it gets out of hand."

It's just about possible that social networking usage might correlate positively with STD infection, but it wouldn't be the result of people using the Facebook site to arrange sexual encounters with strangers, because by and large they don't. It might be that the same social urge that drives people to seek out random contact with strangers for sex also drives people to seek out random connection with strangers in an online environment. Both might be seen as ways of tackling loneliness, for example. More likely, a higher infection-rate among users of social networking sites would be entirely due to sex-focused sites, which presumably is what Professor Kelly had in mind.

The Facebook link is certainly unwarranted. As the spokesman told the Mail, "Facebook is not the place to meet people for casual sex, it is about connecting and sharing with your existing friends." This however is lost on journalists who seem to imagine that Facebook is somehow synonymous with social networking online.

Chris Dillow wrote a few days ago, apropos Peter Chapman:

Chapman could equally be called the “Ford Mondeo killer” or the “Murderer who killed because of police incompetence.” Why bring Facebook into it? Why not have a moral panic about Ford Mondeos?

It’s because Facebook is relatively new and unfamiliar, at least to trash papers’ target audience. So it’s easier to have a moral panic about it than about Ford Mondeos.

It may also, of course, have something to do with the fact that Facebook use is higher among journalists than among almost any other group. I've no idea what the journalistic incidence of syphilis is, however.


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