Calm Down. Facebook Doesn't Cause Syphilis.

This morning, numerous British newspapers and tabloids (followed by a wave of bloggers) reported that Facebook use had been “linked to a rise in Syphilis” in a number of cities in the UK. That’s certainly an attention-grabbing headline, but Facebook users out there may want to think twice before putting any weight into the claim. For starters, the article in The Telegraph, which appears to be among the first publications to have broken the news, gets off to a bad start: it says that Syphilis is caused by a virus (it’s actually a bacterial infection — I knew my biology degree would come in handy one day!). But more importantly, the story’s facts are nebulous at best.

For one, the articles in question say that the number of Syphilis infections in the English town of Teesside has grown to a whopping thirty cases in 2009 (up from a mere ten cases the previous year). Sure, that’s a big jump percentage-wise, but the small sample size and the complete lack of details about any of these studies makes the conclusion that Facebook can somehow be linked to Syphilis extremely dubious.

All of the articles quote the same person: Professor Peter Kelly, director of Public Health for NHS Tees, and none of the quotes seem to contain any concrete evidence. Here’s a sample quote taken from The Sun that doesn’t exactly inspire confidence (yes, I know it’s a tabloid, but it has more quotes than the other articles):

“I don’t get the names of people affected, just figures. And I saw that several of the people had met sexual partners through these sites. Social networking sites are making it easier for people to meet up for casual sex. There is a rise in syphilis because people are having more sexual partners than 20 years ago and often do not use condoms.”

This sounds more like an observation based on a small number of cases rather than an established trend, and it doesn’t say anything about causation. I’m hardly the first to notice this — Dr. Petra Boynton of the UK has written a detailed blog post outlining the lack of evidence cited in the report, and Dr. Ben Goldacre is trying to gather more details from the NHS (which has gone silent, according to his Twitter posts). The Guardian has pointed out the weakness of the claims as well.

We reached out to Facebook for their stance. Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes gave us this statement:

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. As Facebook’s more than 400 million users know, our Web site is not a place to meet people for casual sex – it’s a place for friends, family and coworkers to connect and share.