Could social media slow the spread of HIV?

Social media could slow the spread of HIV, according to a digital analyst.

Sean Young (not that one) from the UCLA Center for Digital Behavior presented his ideas in an article in the journal Trends in Microbiology. He says that people often share health and personal information freely on sites like Twitter, and that hospitals, public health officials and even governments could use this to understand and predict people’s behaviour, allowing them to make interventions where necessary.

He says that tweets about unsafe sex and risky drug behaviour can be linked to locations where HIV rates are higher. Being able to identify these areas early could allow health professionals to intervene (by providing education, free condoms, or clean needles, for example), thus reducing the spread of the disease. He’s now working with a team of computer scientists to create software that can sort through the 500 million or so tweets sent every day.

However, Twitter users might be less impressed than Young is with the idea of their messages being used in this way. Yesterday Samaritans announced its Radar app, which sends users an email alert when someone they follow posts something that could indicate suicidal ideation. It’s aimed at helping people to support their friends, but there’s been a significant backlash from mental health service users who feel spied on and worried about stalkers or abusers potentially using the app to keep tabs on them.

Although anyone without a private account is of course making their tweets public, a lot of us expect that those messages won’t go any further than our followers’ feeds. Apps like Radar and projects like Young’s show that’s not the case. In fact, if you check out Twitter’s privacy policy, it makes clear that using the service means consenting to your tweets going God-knows-where:

‘Our Services broadly and instantly disseminate your public information to a wide range of users, customers, and services. For instance, your public user profile information and public Tweets are immediately delivered via SMS and our APIs to our partners and other third parties, including search engines, developers, and publishers that integrate Twitter content into their services, and institutions such as universities and public health agencies that analyse the information for trends and insights.’

Young says that many patients are embracing this idea, and thinks that the benefits are worth any loss of privacy. ‘Since people are already getting used to the fact that corporations are doing this, we should at least support public health researchers in using these same methods to try and improve our health and wellbeing,’ he says.

Whether you agree that as long as we’re blabbing into the ether, it might as well be used to help our health, or think organisations should find another way to develop potentially useful interventions, it seems likely our tweets will continue to be used in this way. In future, if we don’t want researchers/doctors/governments to know what we’ve been up to, we’ll either have to make our accounts private, or start looking into carrier pigeons.

Image via Pixabay.

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