The Role of Social Media in the Fight against HIV & AIDS
By Gift Banda
On the 28th of January 2011, the former President of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, shut off the Internet across the entire country. This unprecedented blackout lasted for five days. Mubarak’s decision came after days of protests by many Egyptians who were mostly gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square (or “Liberation Square”). Most protestors coordinated via social media platforms and in the weeks leading up to the protests, Egyptians created 32,000 Facebook Groups and 14,000 Facebook Pages. Mubarak’s desperate attempt to halt the flow of communication further invigorated protests. Following the five-day blackout, over one million Egyptians joined demonstrations across the country—up to a tenfold increase. When the Internet was finally restored, Facebook had its highest-ever number of users from Egypt. After 18 days of protest, President Mubarak resigned from office, ending his 30 years of authoritarian rule. In the wake of the blackout, President Barack Obama stated, “Once more, we’ve seen the incredible potential for technology to empower citizens and the dignity of those who stand up for a better future.”
In this Tahrir Square example, social media not only served as a vital channel for communication, but also brought individual citizens a sense of self-empowerment through the capacity to express, discuss, participate, and assemble.
Social Media as a Tool
In this article, social media is defined as platforms that connect people online based on a common topic or goal. This definition focuses on the connection between people and the sharing of information through text, photos, or videos. It is a known fact that the daily users of social media are young people. The popularity of social is because it is inexpensive, accessible, and easy to use. Due to young people often being dependent on the financial assistance of their family, they are also likely to use social media more frequently.
Social media has the potential for young people to connect, express, learn, engage, and act with the simple push of a button; the power of social media is undeniable and cannot be ignored. With this tremendous power that resides in social media, it can be used as a tool in global health initiatives, especially for the fight against HIV. The social interaction that social media offers can be mainstreamed with other health-related initiatives to offer double benefits to the people. HIV prevention is a widely discussed topic and we often ignore that HIV prevention relates to information provision.
In behavioral change models, information provision is highly emphasized. For a person to change his or her behaviors that are risky, it is of paramount importance that such behavioral modifications must be parallel with relevant information for proper decision-making. Effective health information delivery must be engaging and must be in line with the behaviors of the target population. As mentioned earlier, almost 80% of young people across the globe use social media for their daily communication endeavors. Therefore, integrating HIV prevention messages on social media will likely meet this 80% of young people who use social media.
It is also important that we consider using platforms or strategies that are appropriate to young people and so they can easily understand the message. Young people are sensitive to what is around them and so by using platforms that are unacceptable or inappropriate to youth, it may not be enough in the fight against HIV & AIDS.
Health Promotion and Stigma
The benefits of social media are also used in health promotion. As defined by the Ottawa charter for health promotion, health promotion is the process of enabling people to increase their control and improvement of health. Social media is engaging as it allows young people to state their views on a particular topic of discussion and this makes them develop a sense of ownership towards the message. This brings out an empowerment element that is very vital in health-related messages. Social media can act as a platform for sharing information that will help individuals and communities to combat HIV-related stigma. This is because it allows people to access information about the importance of accepting PLHIV and the knowledge that being HIV positive does not warrant a defined difference to those who are negative.
As it was the case in the Tahrir Square scenario, social media has the greatest potential of making serious modification in our societies, especially in the fight against HIV and the stigma that PLHIV face daily. If social media can be innovatively utilized by individuals and organizations, it will be able to meet a huge number of young people across the globe.
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 http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/17290 376.2011.9724996 (uploaded: September 2011. Accessed March 2020)