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Pox-ridden dictators, media delusions and online activism–36 hours in the syphilis/social networking story

March 26th, 2010

Dr Petra

You may have seen or heard the news coverage yesterday suggesting a link between rising rates of Syphilis and hooking up via Facebook.

It came from a statement made by the Director of Public Health in Teeside who in a press release suggested an association between social networking and STIs. This was snapped up by the Sun, then the Telegraph. Both of whom ran with lurid headlines that Facebook was linked to a rise in Syphilis. Many other news outlets quickly, and unquestioningly, picked up on the story which soon went global.

But of course it is much more complicated than the media might suggest and you can read my deconstruction of the story and questions journalists should have asked about the statements from Teeside’s Director of Public Health here.

As the story has spread over the past 36 hours it has been a mixture of astoundingly poor media coverage, misleading health information, and superb examples of public challenge and sex education.

Here’s how it’s unfolded…


#Syphilis became big news

During the course of yesterday #syphilis became a trending topic on twitter. It began with inevitable questions of why people were talking about Syphilis and led to a thorough debunking of the study by bloggers (linked to above) and questions about what Syphilis actually is. Folk went looking on Wikipedia and elsewhere to find out more.

As discussions unfolded it became obvious that people are still very ignorant about this STI. Some seemed to think it no longer existed or saw it as something from history. Others reacted with revulsion talking about their neighbourhood being adversely affected by being linked with Syphilis, or expressing concern they might be exposed to infection. Judgemental attitudes about those who might have or get Syphilis abounded, many of which had a misogynistic subtext with promiscuous women seen as the source of the problem. General statements about Syphilis also indicated a lack of awareness of symptoms, prevention or treatment.

The sex educators step in

Seeing an opportunity to answer questions about Syphilis myself and sex educator colleagues from Bishtraining and Scarleteen joined in discussions, shared links to accurate resources on Syphilis and other STIs We encouraged people to share this through their blogs, social networking sites, on twitter and by word of mouth to friends and colleagues. We invited them to debunk myths about STIs, and highlight symptoms, prevention and treatment for Syphilis.

Poor media coverage continues
This morning it seemed like the Sun had developed some awareness of the damage they had caused, as they ran a feature focusing on how to spot Syphilis. However, this was actually an activity in further reinforcing judgemental stereotypes about the STI with a list of dictators and criminals from Hitler to Al Capone used as case studies with the infection. A few symptoms were described, but not accurately, and no information was given about where to get help if one was worried about STIs.

Meanwhile, the Telegraph pulled off an astounding feat of journalism where they followed up the Syphilis story they were partly responsible in starting, but reported it as though this was nothing to do with them, while citing a list of other cases where Facebook had been linked to various social problems.

Birmingham set a good example

Continuing with Teeside PCT’s message, health practitioners from Birmingham seemed to endorse the ‘social networking increases syphilis story’, with reports in Birmingham Mail describing risk taking among youths hooking up via social networking sites and a massive recent rise in Syphilis.

Again, this was challenged by bloggers and sex educators. And it turned out to be another case of inaccurate press reporting. The Outreach Worker Julia Hyland quoted in the story has given me this statement “I did not claim to be an expert in this field and the figures quoted did not come from me, I have called the Evening Mail they told me their figures came from Heartlands [another health trust in Birmingham]”

Julia’s prompt (and brave) response, along with a challenge from the University of Birmingham alerted the paper to their inaccurate reporting and the problematic story from Teeside. Birmingham Mail removed the story from their website.

In the mainstream media no such clarifications or removals have been made. Teeside PCT and their Director of Public Health have seemingly made no such efforts to challenge or clarify. Practitioners are still chasing them for further information (see links in my blog post from yesterday).

Health media seems out of touch with the story

While we might expect the mainstream media to provide poor sexual health coverage, we should expect better from the health press. Sadly this didn’t seem to be the case with Nursing Times leading on the story in a completely uncritical way.

NHSChoices were questioned on twitter why they had not challenged or followed up this story. They responded with “No plans to cover it. No evidence to assess & just a wildly OTT headline”, although they noted “We’ve got a wealth of evidence-based info on sexual health & STIs” (while fairly explaining they don’t offer training to healthcare professionals as they’re a public resource).

Worryingly, although NHSChoices do have excellent resources on Syphilis which practitioners have been using as public information throughout this situation, there seemed to be no consideration from the organisation they should be publicising these resources as the Syphilis story continued to trend. This is despite their remit being public outreach with a specific twitter, blog and website facilities for this purpose. Only when prompted by several sex educators/consultants (particularly Matthew Greenall and Bishtraining) did they start sharing links on Syphilis. These were eagerly picked up and retweeted by NHS Trusts and other parties, but were done only after pressure was applied and 1.5 days after story went global.

Bloggers and sex educators did the job the media ought to have done

There have been some real heroes in this story – aside from Bishtraining and Scarleteen who gave up several hours of their day yesterday and today to challenge and educate, HIV consultant Matthew Greenall has tirelessly chased up information on social networking and STIs and challenged the inadequate handling of this issue from the NHS and Nursing times. Ben Goldacre has been chasing Teeside for more information and sharing his frustrating experiences with them on twitter. Jo MacIver supported Outreach Worker Julia Hyland and encouraged other bloggers (including myself and Ben Goldacre) to hold fire on attacking the story until she had properly investigated the Birmingham angle. Countless people on twitter took up the challenge of being sex educators and shared links to STI awareness and debunked the media coverage. In particular @regordane @silv24 @Heresy_Corner @DrMarkBurnley @The_MediaBlog and @viviane212 were active in challenging, questioning and keeping this story trending.

The past 24 hours continue to show us how many media and healthcare staff don’t seem to understand social media. Mainstream media with only a few exceptions (here, here and here) have failed to ask basic questions over accuracy of story. Some healthcare organisations have also failed to critique the statements coming from Teeside, or have not responded promptly to issue. To date nothing has been said by either the Department of Health or the Health Protection Agency.

It has been left to bloggers and sex educators volunteering their time to actively engage through social media to challenge this story and share accurate information.

Ironically in a story about the evils of social networking, it has been social networks that have challenged the story and turned it from a piece of scaremongering into an internationally shared opportunity to spread sexual health awareness.

There are still many questions to be answered – not least from the papers who spread the story, and from Teeside’s Director of Public Health. Facebook has not really become involved as yet and there is speculation on whether they might take action (and in what form).

In the meantime, let’s not lose momentum on this story. We can all continue to be sex educators and media critics. We can find poor coverage and alert readers to why it is bad. And we can keep telling or friends, neighbours, colleagues and folk we’re connected to via social networks about STIs, how to prevent them, and where to get treatment if we think we’re at risk.

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