Home Is a Facebook/Syphilis Connection ‘Ridiculous’?

Is a Facebook/Syphilis Connection ‘Ridiculous’?

Yesterday, the Telegraph ran an article about a study that seemed to have found a connection between the spread of syphilis and the popularity of Facebook. Today, the paper has run a follow-up story, wherein “Facebook has said that reports linking the site’s rise to an increased incidence of the bacterial infection syphilis are ‘ridiculous'”.

According to the article, a Facebook spokesman has said that the initial report ignores “the difference between correlation and causation”, but is the idea so unbelievable? Are we falling into the trap of technological determinism in thinking that Facebook could actually aid in and cause the spread of STDs?

Right off the bat, we have to say that Facebook has a decent argument, at least on a semantic and statistical level. Further on in the Telegraph follow-up article, the spokesman for the social networking site “pointed out that the dramatic rise in social networking over the past two years meant that Facebook’s rise could be correlated with any other increased trend in the UK”. Is it really so hard to believe, though, that people are meeting and arranging casual sexual encounters through the social network? According to Facebook, it is:

“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,” a Facebook spokesman is quoted as saying in the initial article.

It’s not like we’re comparing the rise in popularity of a site that sells used cars with sexually transmitted disease – Facebook deals in social interaction, which does, indeed, involve sex and therefor sexually transmitted diseases. Even the name “Facebook” comes from the book that some colleges put out at the beginning of every year with pictures and names of all of the incoming class (at least they used to) – the book that upper-classmen scan for the hot incoming freshman. The only thing that might be missing from the previous statement is that, at times, Facebook is a place for friends, family and co-workers to connect and share…sexually transmitted diseases. Okay, hopefully not family.

But is it really Facebook’s fault? Probably not. While the professor behind the study said that there was a “fourfold increase in the number of syphilis cases” in these areas, where residents were 25 percent more likely to log onto Facebook, the site is likely not at fault. Were Facebook not available, we’d likely be trying to put the blame on Myspace, Craigslist, Friendster or whatever other method that was most popular for social interaction there.

In the end, we run into one of those “chicken or the egg” dilemmas. Would these towns, absent entirely of the Internet, have these same rates of syphilis? Or are the new communication options offered by the Internet making this all possible?

We’re likely to stand behind the idea that the Internet, indeed, aids in interaction and Facebook’s popularity is likely a solid corollary, but that this is not an inherent fault with the network. Blame the Internet, if you will – it can take it.

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