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Online privacy concerns limit the reach of sexual health messages on social media
Roger Pebody, 2016-04-25 08:10:00

The way in which individuals manage their identities on Facebook, for example avoiding publication of material which could be seen as revealing something about their sexual behaviour or HIV status, limits the potential of online campaigns like It Starts With Me to reach wide and new audiences, according to a study published online ahead of print in Sexual Health. Those people most exposed to such campaigns are likely to be people who already believe in the social norms that the campaign promotes, the researchers say.

“Nearly all of our participants held concerns about privacy relating to their social media use and their engagement with sexual health interventions,” the researchers say. The researchers did not ask direct questions about privacy but it emerged spontaneously as an important theme in interviews.

The data come from a qualitative evaluation of HIV Prevention England’s health promotion programme It Starts With Me. The programme, which began in 2013 and is ongoing, targets gay men and African people living in England with messages promoting HIV testing and increased condom use. As well as advertising and face-to-face outreach, the programme includes social media interventions.

Users are encouraged to share, ‘like’ and comment on Facebook posts. These actions are important for increasing the number of people who see posts and for building a network of individuals engaged with the campaign.

Indeed, data on this kind of engagement are often cited by HIV Prevention England to demonstrate the campaign’s reach. Currently the two It Starts With Me Facebook pages are ‘liked’ by almost 34,000 people. In a three-month period last year there were around 250,000 engagements (clicks, likes, shares) with paid-for content produced by the campaign across a range of digital platforms. In the last twelve months, there have been around 75,000 engagements with posts on the campaign’s Facebook pages.

Although those figures are impressive, they don’t tell us more about who is engaging with the material and how they do so.