Can HIV prevention benefit from social media in Africa?

Today, UNAIDS convened a meeting in South Africa to discuss possibilities for leveraging social media/facebook, etc. for renewing the fight against AIDS. In the wake of the Arab spring, and the rising penetration of mobile technology and the internet in Africa, certainly, it’s worth a try. (Indeed, one of the great hopes of the Uwezo project in East Africa I am currently studying is that social media will help spark positive citizen action.) But I think we need to be cautious before jumping to the conclusion that the power of facebook can translate easily to every development challenge. In the case of HIV prevention, it’s still not clear which messages actually work for behavior change, or if young people, or any people, will be moved by such posts in a manner that’s different from the signs they see everywhere, the commercials on tv, the radio, etc. People couldn’t plan a political revolution out in the open and in schools, and protests required tight coordination of individual actions, so social media had much to offer. Perhaps in the area of HIV prevention there could be substantial benefits if people join groups where others pledge to practice safe sex and/or where members of a social network provide clear and accurate information, respond to questions about prevention methods, etc. But, unfortunately, those same networks are routinely used for the spread of false information, and help to facilitate sexual contacts that may increase the risk of greater spread.

Too many HIV prevention campaigns have been launched based on instinct without much in the way of solid research, and I hope that part of the UNAIDS approach to this new terrain will be to promote such investigations. The Gates foundation has only recently begun to invest in social science research for global health and this would be a great area for new studies.

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