The Internet is in mourning today. Lady Gaga, Justin Timberlake, Usher, and other celebrities have turned off their Facebook feeds and Twitter accounts, subjecting themselves to temporary digital deaths in the spirit of charity. To revive the stars, fans are challenged to raise one million dollars for nonprofit Keep a Child Alive, which supports children and families in developing nations living with HIV/AIDS.
One campaign promotion shows reality-show vixen Kim Kardashian heavily made up and sprawled out in a coffin—the message being that the death of one person should not overshadow that of millions of others.
Social media is growing up to become an essential tool for reducing stigma about HIV/AIDS. The pandemic’s reach across identities is evident as everyone from a proud mother of a gay son to a young man living with HIV openly tweets or vlogs his or her support for a fundraising campaigns or thoughts on the latest research.
With social media’s educational possibilities in mind, public health groups are investing significant time and money into their Facebook pages and YouTube channels in hopes of increasing HIV testing rates and reducing transmission. The question is whether these tools can reach populations most vulnerable to HIV/AIDS.
For weeks, websites have been using their social reach to hype World AIDS Day—today, December 1. AIDS.gov asked its followers to take self-portraits while holding cards that explain why they are “Facing AIDS.” Hundreds of pictures were submitted via Flickr. The explanations are personal and simple: “I’m Facing AIDS because it has been long enough,” or “When Facing AIDS, there is strength in numbers.” Elsewhere around the Internet, Facebook glamour shots have been replaced by red-ribbon clipart and tweets bombarding followers with messages of hope are forcing everyone with an online identity to give a minute’s thought to the disease.
Today’s widespread support for people living with the virus is amazing, considering that just 25 years ago, HIV/AIDS was something new to the American public’s vocabulary. Public health messages at bus stops and health clinics explained that HIV could not be spread by way of doorknob, glass, or toilet seat. One poster from the AIDS Hotline for Kids read, “I have AIDS/Please hug me/I can’t make you sick.” The loudest voices for HIV awareness were activists, such as those behind the 1987 “Silence = Death” project, whose slogan and pink triangle will forever remind people of the poor response during the outbreak’s early years.
The developing relationship between social media and HIV conflicts with experts’ declaration that AIDS is “the forgotten epidemic,” as recently stated by former surgeon general C. Everett Koop. From his perspective, 516,000 new HIV infections each year in the United States is far from progress. Despite so many open conversations about the disease, federally funded prevention campaigns, and reduced stigma, data shows that gay and bisexual men (especially in communities of color), transwomen, and intravenous-drug users are still taking unnecessary risks.
The African-American Office of Gay Concerns in Newark, New Jersey, is one of several non-profit groups experimenting with social networking to reach vulnerable populations. In Newark, young African-American men and transwomen make up a disproportionate number of new infections. The Office’s “Status is Everything” campaign allows followers to access nearby HIV testing centers via text, apply to model for the campaign’s posters on Facebook, or view a series of videos featuring African-Americans engaging in “Real Talk” about the virus. “You have to cater to your target audience,” says Executive Director Gary Paul Wright. “A lot of these messages go to the jugular of who they want to reach.”
The Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center is reaching out to young gay and bisexual men in West Hollywood with “In the Moment,” a series of sexually charged Webisodes depicting a handsome and diverse cast facing the reality of HIV in a hookup culture. According to Susan Cohen, the Center’s director of health education and prevention, the videos were created after a decline in attendance of their in-person male discussion groups two years ago. The Web series, by filmmaker Dave OʼBrien, was designed to meet men where they were gathering—online. With over 35,000 hits, the campaign has exceeded expectations. “The first week that we were online, our system crashed because we couldn’t handle the volume of views we had,” Cohen says.
Despite best efforts to incorporate social networking into the arsenal of HIV prevention, the reality is that not everyone has a smartphone or a laptop. “I don’t think we can ever get away from traditional media,” Wright says. Although the world is quickly going digital, the lesson being learned is that funding for Facebook groups is now just as important as funding for doctor’s office pamphlets. High-risk individuals may not be seeking this information or always know that it’s available. But with social media, organizations have a way to recruit their friends, who will use opportunities like World AIDS Day or campaigns like In the Moment to pass on the message: Stay safe and get tested, for me.