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Facebook news: divorced from the facts

March 5th, 2011

Everyone loves a good Facebook news story – or rather, a bad one. And over the past few days, a classic has emerged: Facebook will wreck your marriage. See for example:

Facebook cited in 20% of U.S. divorces (CBC News): "Facebook use has been cited in 1 of 5 U.S. divorce cases, according to a recent survey among American marriage lawyers."

Facebook Linked to More Divorces (Consumer Affairs): "The source of this observation is the nation's divorce lawyers, who may be in a position to know…"

Reason for 1 in 5 divorces in the US: Facebook (Perez Hilton): "According to a study.."

Facebook Blamed for 1 in 5 Divorces in the US (ZDnet): "According to a recent survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML)."

And of course, many more.

So far, so tedious – an association of lawyers has conducted a recent survey, and so on. It's not groundbreaking news, but hey, it's a job. But if you go looking for that recent survey – to check how it was conducted, perhaps – you'll find something a little odd: there doesn't seem to be one.

All the stories, in fact, seem to stem from a press release entitled (yes, in all-caps): "DON’T LET YOUR MARRIAGE BE AMONG THE 1 IN 5 DESTROYED BY FACEBOOK". It was issued by Loyola Medicine, a University in Chicago, and includes lots of nice media-friendly quotes from a PhD there. Top two paras:

MAYWOOD, Ill. – If you’re single, Facebook and other social networking sites can help you meet that special someone. However, for those in even the healthiest of marriages, improper use can quickly devolve into a marital disaster.

A recent survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers found that Facebook is cited in 1 in 5 divorces in the United States. Also, more than 80 percent of divorce lawyers reported a rising number of people are using social media to engage in extramarital affairs.

So, there's the recent survey, but there's no link. Take a look at the AAML website, and there seems to be no mention of a recent survey there, either – which is odd, as recent press releases from the last month (none mention Facebook) are prominently displayed.

Dig back in the archive a bit, though, and you'll find this: "Big Surge in Social Networking Evidence Says Survey of Nation's Top Divorce Lawyers":

Chicago, IL, February 10, 2010— If your status is separated or going through a divorce, you might want to stay off Facebook. An overwhelming 81% of the nation’s top divorce attorneys say they have seen an increase in the number of cases using social networking evidence during the past five years, according to a recent survey of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML).   Facebook holds the distinction of being the unrivaled leader for online divorce evidence with 66% citing it as the primary source.

It goes on. But note the date: February 10, last year. There's no mention that I can see of the "1 in 5" statistic, but other parts of the story (the "over 80 per cent", for instance) seem to come from this release.

So where does this leave the news about Facebook and divorce? Well, there are two possibilities.

It could be that there's a new survey, or at least new press release, not commonly available, at the heart of the whole story. I contacted the AAML asking for a copy of "its recent press release regarding Facebook and divorce", but have received nothing. If it shows up, I'll post it here. It's probably bollocks, but at least it would be *new* bollocks.

But I think the second possibility is more likely: that this is a non-story, sparked by an unimportant press release that misquotes year-old "research", that has made it into the output of several news outlets who should know better (and many others that perhaps shouldn't) on the back of a nice negative line about a popular website. And, more worryingly, I don't see any evidence that the news outlets even attempted to check the data – if they had, they would have found the same as me.

Or to put it another, more media-friendly way: Facebook causes bad journalism.

– UPDATE 9/3:

The Guardian ran the story last night, here, and as I write this it's the most popular story on its Technology section. According to Twitter it's also running on CNN, and of course the Guardian story has been picked up by websites, blogs etc.

In the meantime, Loyola Medicine responded to my request for a copy of the AALM release. The press officer sent me a link to the February 2010 research. When I questioned the source of the "1 in 5" he apologised and put it down to a mathematical error on his part, then supplied me with a corrected release without that statistic.

– SECOND UPDATE

Loyola has replaced its original press release online with an amended version – you can see it here, or the original in Google's cache here. The key changes are in the third paragraph, which has gone from:

A recent survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers found that Facebook is cited in 1 in 5 divorces in the United States. Also, more than 80 percent of divorce lawyers reported a rising number of people are using social media to engage in extramarital affairs.

to:

A survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers found that “Facebook holds the distinction of being the unrivaled leader for online divorce evidence with 66% citing it as the primary source.” Also, more than 80 percent of divorce lawyers reported they “have seen an increase in the number of cases using social networking evidence” during the past few years.

So it's now correct, in as far as reporting the original AAML release.

– UPDATE 10/3:

BBC Radio 5 Live is the latest outlet to run a 13-month-old press release as news – it's on iPlayer here. The Guardian story now clearly states "a 2010 survey" as its source, which is true, although "February 2010" wouldn't have looked so good. It was the top story on the Guardian website for some time yesterday.

– UPDATE 12/3

It's still going. I particularly like this story, which half-way through even references the fact that the website has covered another AAML release (hint: it's the same one) some time previously. The good news is that the Wall Street Journal's Carl Bialik has picked up the myth on his Numbers Guy blog, here, and in print. Another good round-up of the nonsense and its sources has been posted here.

3 Responses to “Facebook news: divorced from the facts”

JonGarfunkel Says:

Tom — thank you for noticing this as well! Now begins the slow process of corrective every churnalist who spit the story out.

I'll add that the source of the "1 in 5" stat appears to be a UK Telegraph article from December 2009: "One law firm, which specialises in divorce, claimed almost one in five petitions they processed cited Facebook."
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/facebook/6857918/Facebook-fuelling-divorce-research-claims.html

Just as well, the problem here is that people are finishing the sentence "cited Facebook as the cause" instead of "cited Facebook in the evidence."

Tom Royal Says:

Hi Jon

Thanks for your comment – I hadn't spotted the Telegraph story. It's on the move, though – another lawyer has jumped onto the bandwagon with another release:

http://www.prnewschannel.com/absolutenm/templates/?z=4&a=3582

.. and the original press release from "Divorce Online" was noted as "Bad PR of the week" back in 2009, here:

http://www.10yetis.co.uk/public-relations/index.php?/archives/682-10-Yetis-Good-and-Bad-PR-Tuesday-22nd-December-2009.html

Tom

Tom Royal Says:

A quick follow-up on this: the AAML didn't return my request for its press release but, to its credit, Loyola Medicine did.

The press officer confirmed that the source was indeed the AAML release linked above, and emailed me a corrected version, without the "One in Five" statistic. The new top line is "Facebook used in evidence in 66 per cent of divorce cases in the US". I wonder if this version will get picked up, too.

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