The Telegraph reports on the rise in syphilis in several English communities—cities in Britain where Facebook is the most popular. Professor Peter Kelly, director of public health in Teesside, publicly announced that they had, in fact, found a “link” between the two.
And by “link,” he means “cum hoc, ergo propter hoc.” That’s Latin for “correlation doesn’t imply causation”—Facebook’s response to the allegations. (Okay, really, the Latin translation is “with this, therefore because of this,” and is a logical fallacy.)
I think it should be fairly obvious that Facebook use can’t directly cause syphilis. (As I understand it, there still needs to be physical contact for the transmission of everything but computer viruses—and yes, Facebook can enable those hook ups, but really, the people still make those decisions. Come on.) There may actually be some relationship here—but most likely there are other variables affecting the findings, too. (Perhaps sexually promiscuous individuals are more “socially promiscuous” online, on any social network.)
Kelly says that Facebook use, especially among young women in Teesside, is contributing to the spread of syphilis. Apparently he does still understand how the disease is spread, since he warns that “Anyone who has unprotected sex with casual partners is at high risk.” He claims that Facebook makes it easier for people to get together for such encounters, and in the cities where there have been a fourfold increase in syphilis cases, young people were 25% more likely to use Facebook.
Have they looked at any other factors? Is cell phone use on the rise there? (Heck, landlines? Text messaging? Paging, Tweeting?) Have they even tried to establish that the same young people using Facebook are the ones spreading the disease?
In the absence of a scientific study—or at the very least, a survey for the people actually testing positive for syphilis—it’s impossible, irresponsible and illogical to blame Facebook. Facebook points out that, if this logic held true, you could blame them for anything else on an upward trend in the UK. They respond:
The assertion that Facebook is responsible for the transmission of syphilis is ridiculous. Facebook is no more responsible for STD transmission than newspapers responsible for bad vision. Today’s reports exaggerate the comments made by the professor, and ignore the difference between correlation and causation.
As Facebook’s more than 400 million users know, our website is not a place to meet people for casual sex – it’s a place for friends, family and co-workers to connect and share.
Obviously, there’s nothing inherent about Facebook that makes it the most likely source of STDs. In fact, the increase in Facebook use might only indicate that more of the young people in the area have abandoned Bebo, MySpace, Twitter and other social networks more quickly than in the rest of Britain—they don’t offer any data on social networking in general, which would seem just as likely to facilitate casual sex as Facebook. (Hello, Craigslist personals.)
What do you think? Is there enough here to make a conclusion? Or is someone angling for links (when they might want to worry more about advertising condoms on social networks)?