Washington: In a new study, researchers have discovered that posts on social media websites like Facebook and Twitter could help control the spread of HIV.
Although public health researchers have focused early applications of social media on reliably monitoring the spread of diseases such as the flu, Sean Young of the Center for Digital Behavior at the University of California, Los Angeles, said that we were still in the early stages of testing how powerful these technologies would be.
He added that with the right tools in place, social media could offer a rich source of psychological and health-related data generated in an environment in which people are often willing to share freely.
His recent work on Behavioral Insights on Big Data (BIBD) for HIV offers the tantalizing possibility that insights gleaned from social media could be used to help governments, public health departments, hospitals, and caretakers monitor people's health behaviors "to know where, when, and how we might be able to prevent HIV transmission."
Young details a social-media-based intervention in which African American and Latino men who have sex with men shared a tremendous amount of personal information through social media, including when or whether they had "come out," as well as experiences of homelessness and stigmatization. What's more, they found that people who discussed HIV prevention topics on social media were more than twice as likely to later request an HIV test.
In the context of HIV prevention, tweets have also been shown to identify people who are currently or were soon to engage in sexual- or drug-related risk behaviors. Those tweets could be mapped to particular locations and related to actual HIV trends.
Young said there was a need for updated infrastructure and sophisticated toolkits to handle all of those data, noting that there are about 500 million communications sent every day on Twitter alone.
Although privacy concerns about such uses of social media shouldn't be ignored, Young said there was evidence that people had already begun to accept such uses of social media, even by corporations looking to boost profits.
The study is published in the journal Cell Press.