At first glance the website PlentyOfSyph looks like many other dating sites, but as the name suggests, there is something very different about it.
Financed by the Canadian government and created by Alberta Health Services, this site is actually a parody of dating sites like PlentyOfFish.com.
The site is part of the government’s 2 million dollar campaign to combat the rising rates of syphilis in Alberta, Canada. Although the intention is good, the only thing that I think this campaign does well is equate internet dating with the acquisition of Syphilis.
How the site will increase testing for syphilis, raise awareness, and promote the overall sexual health of Albertans is beyond me. What the creators apparently do not realize is that the Internet and its many dating sites, are no more than communication tools that facilitate in-person dating.
What the site clearly implies is that online dating is the place where one gets syphilis, which is nothing less than the blatant stigmatization of those that use the Internet for dating. This shaming is not only directed towards gay men, where the majority of syphilis cases are found, but it is also directed towards the 1 in 6 couples that were married within the last 3 years that met online.
There have been many studies that have looked at behaviors, HIV/STDs risks, and Internet use. The general outcome of this research is conflicting as the studies often contradict one another. Taken as a full body of work, they do not even come close to painting a clear picture of the correlation between HIV/STD risk and Internet use – because Internet use is a red herring in the discussion of HIV/STD risk. But the research is easily fundable as a ‘hot topic’ that is ‘poorly understood’ so the studies proliferate.
I believe this campaign is not only a waste of precious Canadian dollars but has potential to ultimately cause harm by ostracizing those that use the Internet for dating. I also believe that the site portrays public health as judgmental and completely out of touch with today’s realities.
PlentyofSyph is a prime example of how public health fails to understand that using social media for health promotion, disease prevention, and infection intervention activities requires a different attitude. Campaigns that use social media must be more consumer aware and apply an ‘opt-in’ approach that engages users, rather than adapting the old information ‘push’ approach that often uses stigma, shame and fear to change behavior.