A slow-news end of summer had mainstream newspapers falling back on oldhabits to make new headlines. Most sensational was the story of the“syphilis fraternity”—seven gay men who tested positive for the STDafter frequenting SFM4M (San Francisco Men for Men), an America Online(AOL) chat room used by Bay Area boys to arrange get-togethers. Whatmade this newest skirmish in the epidemic’s familiar public health–vs.–personal freedom war a first was that it took place on theInternet, pitting public health against the right to privacy.

The AOL members’ anony-mity—and the discomfort of most media when facedwith the unregulated underbelly of web culture—proved a highlyflammable mix. One of the men in the virtual bathhouse, gasped USA Today,“is known to have exposed 47 partners [to syphilis].” The late-breakingfact that as many as five of the men had HIV only added icing to thecake. The Syphilis Seven (and their 99 total possible infectees) loomedas a health crisis because of their anony-mity, and AOL was put through the ethics wringer for protecting the men’s identities.

That’s when volunteers from PlanetOut, a gay-focused website, droppedin on SFM4M to provide sex education and referrals to men known only bytheir user names. AOL—one of PlanetOut’s owners—had requested theintervention, a first for the news-and-entertainment company, thoughthe prevention information was identical to what street outreachprograms have been dispensing for years.

For those who dreamed that cluster-study panic went the way of PatientZero, this event was a rude awakening. Reporters seized on the “firstdisease cluster in cyberspace” as a lead. It was the adult version ofkiddie-porn Internet warnings: Try looking for love—let alone sex withstrangers—on the dark, sticky web, and you can count on some nastyvirus as punishment.

Although big cities from New York to San Francisco had alreadyannounced an up--surge in syphilis infections, the total cases remainedtiny (the CDC reported 46 cases during the first half of 1998). Addingfuel to the fire was the simultaneous release of a University ofCalifornia at San Francisco study in which a quarter of the gay maleparticipants reported unprotected anal sex with a partner of theopposite or unknown status. With the AOL story’s anecdotal evidencesharing column space with the UCSF data, each only confirmed theother’s most sinister point: The gays—HIV positive, reckless andpredatory—are at it again, and now they’re at large in cyperspace.

The demonization of gay sex never left mainstream media, even in papersthat use “PWA” instead of “AIDS victim,” but as the dog days of Augustdragged to a close, disease-carrying insects in the Northeast tooksyph’s place at the top of the hour. Stay tuned for the nexthorror-headline comeback: “First case of mosquito-to-human HIVtransmission!"