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

January 3rd, 2012

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)

Hacked off by statistics

September 22nd, 2010

Here’s an interesting story from the Press Association, today:

One in five university students have hacked into computer systems, from using someone else’s online profile to breaching internet shopping accounts, a survey has found.

The idea that “One in five university students have hacked into computer systems” is pretty remarkable. Of course there’s no indication given of what the survey means by “hack”, but even assuming it’s something vague, along the lines of “bypassed some sort of computer security measure to use something without someone’s consent” it’s still a very high percentage.

So what does the research itself say? You can’t look it up online, but as a journalist I’m lucky – I can ask the PR for a copy. So I did.

“Tried” and error

The most immediate problem is that the survey doesn’t actually ask the question “have you ever hacked into a computer”. It does ask “Have you ever tried hacking”, and 23% of those surveyed answered “yes”.

Having “tried hacking” and “hacking into” are not the same thing. If I walked to any computer in this office and attempted to log in using the password “hellokitty” I could say, perhaps, that I’ve “tried hacking”. I would not have hacked into anything. Next paragraph of the story:

The survey of 1,000 university students found 37% had hacked Facebook profiles, 26% targeted emails and 10% breached online shopping accounts.

This suggests that 37% of the 1000 students surveyed (there were, in fact, 1001, but never mind) have hacked into Facebook. That’s completely wrong. In fact, the question is “have you or a friend ever hacked into the following”, and it was only put to those who answered “yes” to having “tried hacking”.

So, 37% of the 23%, or 10.5% of the total sample, have either “hacked into” Facebook, or rather said-they-thought-they-knew-someone-who-has. You have to wonder if they’re even correct about that. The same error applies to the 26% (really 7.4%) and 10% (3.8%) figures. Next:

Nearly half of the students (46%) had also had their own social networking or email accounts hacked, with 41% saying their passwords to university networks had been abused by a third party.

Again, this is just bollocks. The 46% figure refers to the question “Have you or any of your friends had their (sic) Social Networking/email account hacked?”. The 41% refers to the question “has anyone ever abused your passwords” with no mention of university networks.

The article goes on. And it’s not alone: the same mistakes – particularly attributing percentages to the whole group, when in fact they refer to the much smaller subset, and ignoring the “or a friend clauses” in the questions – can be found in other stories too.

So where does this all come from? Well, here’s the start of the press release:

Research published today by IT security experts, Tufin Technologies, reveals that 23% of college and university students have hacked into IT systems. Of these hackers, 40% waited until after their 18th birthday before their first hacking attempt. On a positive note, 84% of 18-21 year olds recognised that hacking is wrong. However, 32% identified that hacking is ‘cool’ and worryingly, for the targets of hackers in this age group, 28% considered hacking to be easy.

This research, which was supported by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) – builds on a study carried out in March amongst teenagers. The teenage research survey revealed similar attitudes towards hacking, although only 18% considered hacking to be easy, suggesting that hackers’ experience develops through their teenage years. Both surveys found that there was no gender bias in hackers with an equal split between boys and girls.

The survey which was carried out amongst 1000 College and University students from across 5 London Universities and 3 Northern Universities showed that just over one in three students said that they hacked for fun. A further 22% cited curiousity as their main reason for hacking. An entrepreneurial 15% revealed that they hacked to make money. This was further reflected in the types of sites that had fallen victim to these youngsters. The survey found that 37% had hacked facebook accounts, 26% email accounts with 10% breaching online shopping accounts. Although 39% of hackers use their own computer, others have used public computers and networks with 32% a university machine and 23% using an internet café.

Unfortunately, the study also discovered that nearly half of the students (46%) had fallen foul of hackers having had either their social networking or email accounts breached. A further 41% said that they had had their passwords to university networks abused by a third party.

You can read the whole thing here.

It’s easy to see how the errors were copied-and-pasted out: 23% “have hacked”, and “the survey found that 37% had hacked facebook accounts, 26% email accounts with 10% breaching online shopping accounts”, with no mention of the “or a friend” clauses. These errors don’t take much research to spot, but it seems that nobody checked the survey findings, let alone how the survey was conducted.

Call the cops!

Incidentally, you might wonder why this survey, which is clearly designed to promote the computer security firm behind it, mentions the Association of Chief Police Officers, and can be found on that organisation’s website.

After all, ACPO doesn’t exist to help firms promote their services through annoying press releases – it’s partially funded by a grant from the Government. And yet it appears in the release, and pops up in many of the news pieces:

The research by Tufin Technologies and the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) found that…

(Source here)

The report, commissioned by Tufin Technologies and the Association of Chief Police Officers in the U.K

(Source here)

So I asked the ACPO press office, which is easy to do if you’re a journalist but not so much if you just happen to have read one of the stories. The answer? “We weren’t involved in the research at all.”


Incidentally, I also asked the National Union of Students what it made of the whole thing. Its response, in its entirety, was:

“We can’t comment on a survey without full details of the methodology – how was the sample selected, what’s the full demographic of the group, etc.”

How terribly sensible. Clever people, students.

* Sample: me. Completely made up margin of error: 2%.

Election graphs revisited

May 8th, 2010

I never did hear back from Simon Nundy about his campaign’s dodgy use of graphs with misleading titles. But look, I made him a new one from the 2010 results:

Obviously I took the results from Hackney because, you know, they make the point better. But it still works, right?

On Marriage..

February 11th, 2010

This article about marriage is pretty depressing. Not because the number of marriages is falling, you understand. That doesn’t really bother me. But let’s take a look.

For the first time ever fewer than 2 in 100 women, over the age of 16, got married in a single year. In 2008 the marriage rate for women fell from 2 per cent to 1.96 per cent, less than half the rate 25 years ago.

The rate for men has shown a similar decline, according to the annual figures published by the Office for National Statistics.

Which is all fine, except perhaps from the commas after “women” and “16”. Onward.

The figures highlight how marriage has substantially fallen out of favour. From a peak in 1940, when 426,1000 young couples – spurred on by the urgency of World War II – married for the first time, just 147,130 marriages in 2008 were where both partners were getting wed for the first time.

In total, just 228,204 marriages took place during 2008 in England and Wales.

The pedant in me wonders if all 426,000 (assuming the “1” in the figure is a typo) first marriages in 1940 were spurred on by the Second World War. The rest of me wonders whether an increase in second marriages actually suggests that marriage has fallen into favour – so much so that people are getting hitched twice, no less. But more importantly:

The escalating cost of weddings, and the failure of the Government to support the institution of marriage were among the factors blamed. Though, long-term changes in society, especially the increase in the number of women working and their desire to get married later in life, are also key factors.

And here’s the serious bit. Who exactly blamed the Government, or the increased cost? Not the source ONS document. Not anyone named here. So who – the author of this piece? Ditto for the “key factors”.

The average age of women marrying for the first time has nearly hit the symbolic 30-year-old barrier, at 29.9, up from 29.8 during 2007. For men, the average age of getting married for the first time was 32.1 years, up from 32 the previous year.

Many expressed sadness at the statistics.

Blah average ages blah. But wait, many have expressed sadness. Hold on for the avalanche of researchers, politicians, religious busybodies and the like:

Dave Percival, a campaigner for marriage, said: “Living together and marriage are increasingly seen as the same by the public, yet the outcomes are radically different. Two thirds of all the first marriages in 2008 can be expected to last a lifetime. Less than 10 per cent of cohabiting relationships last even to their tenth anniversary.”

Or just Dave, as it turns out, who is a ‘campaigner for marriage’. He has an awkwardly named website, www.2-in-2-1.co.uk, and appears to be involved with www.marriage-week-hosting.co.uk, which put out a press release in 2004. And that’s it. Nobody else is mentioned, and there’s no quote from anyone who might dare to suggest that the declining rate of marriages is really nothing to be too concerned about.

Incidentally, that statistic about cohabiting relationships appears to come from a study by the University of Essex in 1998, so it’s so far out of date that we could phone the surveyed couples up and see how they’re doing after 20 years.

And so we have unreferenced opinion, a quote that’s barely attributed – where’s the link to Dave’s website that would show readers who he is and what he does? – and a complete lack of balance. Happy Valentine’s day, world. And, not that it matters a jot to the argument, I’ve been happily married since 2006 – I just don’t feel that everyone should be obliged to do the same.