Should Facebook Sue UK Newspapers Over Syphilis Innuendos?

Many British newspapers have dedicated their headlines yesterday over the link between the rise of Syphilis in some areas of the United Kingdom with the usage of Facebook.

Details of the whole affair have slowly unravelled. BBC's Rory Cellan-Jones went back to the sources, something that some (traditional) journalists from national newspapers have failed to do, and did an excellent job of actually casting a more objective, less inflammatory view on the whole story.

It turned out that the Syphilis story originated from a press release issued on the 23rd of March by NHS in Middlesbrough (you can view it here).

It was covered by the Daily star, then the Sun and finally by the Telegraph which gave it the worldwide exposure the story needed to snowball.

There's no denying that Professor Peter Kelly, who is heavily quoted in the hundreds of articles about the link between Facebook and the surge in Syphilis, did indeed say that "Social networking sites are making it easier for people to meet up for casual sex" after noting that there has been a 400 percent rise in the "number of syphilis cases detected with more young women being affected".

However, looking closer at the figures and you're likely to be flabbergasted. In 2008, the Teesside area registered less than 10 such cases and in 2009, 30 cases, which is on the verge of being statistically insignificant.

In comparison, Teesside had a population of around 365,000 according to the last 2001 census, according to Wikipedia. This means that all things equal, less than one hundredth of a percent of the area's population had been infected by the disease.

Now here's the kicker. Facebook has more than 400 milllion members around the world with 23 million of them in Britain. It's possibly the biggest single entity in the UK and has nearly four times the number of members as the UK public sector.

Put it otherwise, a third of British citizens are on Facebook, that's three odd millions less than the number of voters in the last election in 2005.

The probability therefore of having Facebookers who meet up and contract some sort of STD is therefore statistically (very) high. Whats worse is that in one case, the Sun reported that "An NHS trust chief said Facebook and similar sites were to blame for a shocking rise in cases of potentially-lethal syphilis in the region." when in reality, this never happened.

No wonder therefore that a source close to Facebook told Vnunet that the company may be considering some sort of action.

A spokesperson for the company also emailed a reply to SeattlePI saying that "While it makes for interesting headlines, the assertions made in newspaper reports that Facebook is responsible for the transmission of STDs are ridiculous, exaggerate the comments made by the professor, and ignore the difference between correlation and causation."

All this happens a couple of weeks after the Daily Mail lashed out at the social networking website in an article entitled "I posed as a girl of 14 on Facebook. What followed will sicken you". It was later found out that the article wrongly targetted Facebook and the Dailymail subsequently issued an apology and a clarification.

So why did this happen? Well, eye balls or more crudely page views and the adverts that they carry. A search for Facebook and Syphilis generated 553,000 results on Google with the Telegraph in the top three. I'll leave you to make your own conclusions.