Zombie News: ‘Facebook Causes Divorce’ just will not die

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fuckwittery / geek / journalism

Pic: The Telegraph covers the original press release

Back in March 2011 I wrote about a sudden flood of news articles claiming that Facebook was being cited in 20% of US divorce cases. After doing a little digging it transpired that the whole thing had sprung from the continual re-hashing, muddling and alteration of a UK press release of late 2009 (which even got a ‘Bad PR’ nomination here).

That original release, from a service called Divorce Online, claimed that one in five divorces cited Facebook as a cause. It got picked up, twisted, confused, muddled in with other statistics, then shot around the web from ZDNet to CBC News to the Guardian as a US-based non-story.

And now, like a dumb-news-fail-Zombie, it’s back.

Divorce Online, having flirted with variations on the theme – gaming causes divorce, anyone?* – appears to have decided to stick with the classics, and at the end of 2011 it issued the same Facebook-causes-divorce news as a press release. The twist: this time over one-third of divorces cite Facebook as a cause.

A survey carried out by UK divorce website Divorce-Online in December 2009 found that 20% of behaviour petitions contained the word “Facebook.”.

A follow up survey in December 2011 has found that number has increased alarmingly during 2011 to 33% of behaviour petitions have been found to contain Facebook in the behaviour allegations. 5000 petitions were queried as in the 2009 sample.

The most common reasons where Facebook was used in the allegations were once again relating to spouses behaviour with the opposite sex, but also spouses now using Facebook to make comments about their exes once they had separated and using their public walls as weapons in their divorce battle.

And, lo and behold, the story’s off and running again. Enter Cnet:

A third of British divorces name Facebook as a factor. Thirty-three per cent of divorce petitions in 2011 include the word Facebook, according to new figures.

The most common reasons for unhappy hubbies and wrathful wives to include Facebook in their divorce proceedings are inappropriate messages to members of the opposite sex, comments posted about each other, and Facebook friends reporting when a spouse has been up to no good.

And repeat offender ZDnet:

Summary: Facebook is cited in 33 percent of divorces in the United Kingdom. This is for the year 2011: the statistic increased from 20 percent for the year 2009. Will it be over 50 percent by 2015?

Facebook is increasingly being blamed as a reason for, or as evidence when, filing for divorce. In 2011, 33 percent of behavior petitions contained the name of the social network; this is a whopping increase from 2009, when only 20 percent mentioned Facebook.

And even the LA Times:

Status update: Facebook breaking up a third of UK marriages

So much for marital bliss. In Great Britain it’s all about the Facebook dis.

Apparently, there’s no such thing as a no-fault divorce across the pond. Facebook is taking the blame for breaking up a third of marriages in which “unreasonable behavior” was a factor.

The popular social networking site is getting an unfriendly rap because it’s a major way that spouses uncover incriminating messages and photos.

And so on and so on. The fascinating thing, though, is how every single outlet has managed to take a story that is, if utterly inconsequential, at least factually correct, and make it simply wrong.

The original press release from Divorce Online makes no claim that one-third of UK divorces have been caused by Facebook, or cite Facebook – simply that Facebook showed up in one third of the the petitions it examined in this year’s ‘follow up survey’. The data being searched was, as the MD was happy to clarify when I emailed him, all submitted via his Divorce Online website.

So the truth – that over one third of some petitions submitted to an online divorce website (and so by, at the very least, those with access to the internet – one might suspect they are even fans of doing things online) mention the word ‘Facebook’ – is turned into ‘One third of all UK/British divorces cite Facebook’, which is an altogether grander and entirely unproven claim. Slow handclap, guys.

Special credit goes to ZDNet for this:

What’s important here is not the actual fraction of divorces (33 percent) Facebook is being blamed for, but the fact it is growing (from 20 percent to 33 percent). Back in December 2009, Facebook was blamed for 20 percent of divorces in the US. It’s impossible to rate the accuracy of these numbers without analyzing every single divorce case in both countries.

That is, of course, a link to the March story, which is itself corrected to state that it relies on the 2009 stats from Divorce Online. Which were UK stats, not US. And from the same source as this article. And it’s not impossible to rate the accuracy of either: you just ask the people who sent the press release how they came up with the numbers.

Kudos to the PR agency, though, which has managed to get its client mentioned all over the place for, presumably, the cost of an online survey, simply by re-working the idea that did well in 2009. If it ain’t broke, etc.

Killing Zombie News once and for all is, of course, relatively simple: journalists just need to read the press releases they receive, then check the facts behind them rather than immediately reblogging the same stuff and sitting back to await the happy buzz of rising Google Analytics. But that takes time and effort. So, watch this space: I have a sneaky feeling I know what we’ll be reading in late December 2012.

Update: once again, the zombie news is up and shambling. Special congratulations to Forbes.com, which really should know better:

One-third of 2011 divorce cases in England implicated Facebook as a cause, according to a survey conducted by a U.K.-based divorce website. The 5,000 people polled cited three reasons for listing Facebook in divorce petitions, including sending inappropriate messages to the opposite sex, posting negative comments about exes on the social network, and friends disclosing a spouse’s behavior.

While Digital Trends again manages to compare the latest ‘data’ with the same stuff from two years ago, as misreported in March via that AAML release:

According to a similar study conducted by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers during 2010, over 80 percent of members have used social networking evidence during a divorce case.

.. and we should also mention Mashable, which although managing to avoid the common mistake of spinning the statistics out to represent the entire UK, does seem to have invented a new form of churnalism: reading stuff from the press release with some swanky graphics and chromakey work:

Great work, all.

* Yes, the Daily Mail ran with that one (warning, hateful website link)

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