Living in the cloud: Social media and the Aids epidemic

Living in the cloud: Social media and the Aids epidemic


With smartphones and broadband becoming increasingly available and affordable across class and geographical divides, we now see the rural and urban poor occupying the same virtual space as the middle class and the rich. This social cloud, as I call it in the research report from which this article is derived, lowers barriers to communication, instant messaging, sharing of photos, videos and other forms of iconography but can also increase the risk of HIV infection.

Social media and reality TV aid the development of common trends and sub-cultures across class and space. As a result, what might previously have been regarded as middle class or urban trends are universalised across class and geography.

It is the largely Euro-American cultures and rituals of conspicuous consumption and narcissism that are universalised.

Through social media and reality television, young people follow the same trends and idolise the same celebrities, irrespective of where followers find themselves. Often, these trends are materialistic and staged.

The notion is that if one can virtually associate with trending personalities, you can also become talk-worthy – trending being a proxy for popularity in the social networks as measured by the number of likes, shares and followers.

In the digital realm, these subcultures of narcissism and conspicuous consumption replicate themselves a million times over because of the virtual dissolution of socio-cultural and spatial barriers.

Knowledge of and aspirations for global trends now transcend socio-historical barriers. For example, when celebrities post sexually suggestive or nude photos on social media, these quickly spread and are ‘liked’ and sometimes mimicked. The recent trending of #AmberRoseChallenge comes to mind. Young women and adolescent girls from villages in South Africa are sharing nudes this youth month inspired by American singer Amber Rose who posed naked to highlight her anti-women abuse cause. This matter in SA became of the excesses of patriarchy.

The following conclusions on the changing political economy of the Aids epidemic in the context of the spread and influence of social media and reality TV are based on the research I conducted since 2016 by scouring Facebook, Badoo, Twitter, Instagram, Tinder, WhatsApp, WeChart, YouTube, Snap Chart and Viber, and from attending blessers’ and mavuso parties in Gauteng.

  • Lowering the costs of dating:It has become cheaper to initiate and maintain multiple sexual relationships. As smartphone coverage continues to surge and data costs decline, boundaries are reduced and people can initiate sexual relations quicker and easier without much care for the status and health profiles of those they meet in the virtual space.
  • Increasing the casualisation of sex and speed dating: Sex can quickly be fixed anywhere, any time and in some instances without protection, negating any consciousness about or messaging on responsible sexual health. Studies have shown that casual sexual relations tend to spread the risk of HIV infections as protection tends to be a secondary consideration in these typically quick and random encounters.
  • Making it more convenient to maintain multiple concurrent sexual partners: With social media, people can have sexual partners anywhere, any time as instant messages reduce the distance. Again, research is clear on the risk of infections posed by multiple concurrent partnering. In fact, this accounts for the majority of causes of the spread of HIV. In the social media experiment I conducted, sexual offers were routinely made irrespective of whether I projected myself as in a committed relationship or as single. As most men say, “social media makes it convenient to juggle women”.
  • Reducing barriers to the sharing of pornography: It is a matter of public record that in South Africa, school authorities and security agencies have had to deal with complex cases of young people recording sexual activity – consensual or abusive – and sharing these on social media platforms. This is partly because pornography is normalised by its availability through social networks. Although one cannot give an accurate scientific number (I was unable to collate all the entries), in the half-dozen social media groups I actively used for the experiment, one in four posts were porn-related or suggestive of explicit unprotected sex. Sharing nudes increases vulnerability of abuse by older and richer men as well as syndicates.
  • Social media facilitates inter-generational mating: Social media is used by older men (and paedophiles) to lure vulnerable younger girls into sexual relations. The phenomenon of sugar daddies is well known in South Africa and its contribution to the Aids epidemic cannot be underestimated since most adolescent girls and young women are infected by older men.The popular meeting point for these relationships is now social media, not some village river in Nongoma or public square as was the case in decades past. Another extreme of this phenomenon is the emergence of mavuso stokvels (casual sex parties where strangers have casual sex in exchange for money) and blessers (casual sexual relationships with rich men in exchange for money, expensive gifts and holidays).At the receiving end of these viral subcultures are adolescent girls and young women who are often powerless and cannot negotiate safe sex. They risk being physically abused or bullied into unprotected sex.
  • Social media is used to promote trends like sex orgies and groupies:This is linked to the point made above re normalisation of pornography and mavuso stokvels. It is not unusual to hear and read newspaper stories about women having orgies and groupies with men who have the “resources” (money and power). For my part, I experimented a few times by organising threesomes with younger women I knew as well as with strangers met on social media.Although these never materialised, I never doubted the willingness of my liaisons to make it all right on the night. Again, in the social media groups I used to observe social trends, most young women and men expressed liberal views towards orgies, groupies and unprotected sex. Some unconsciously regarded these things as rites of passage to adulthood.

The main conclusion from my study is that social media unintentionally furthers the casualisation of sex, mating across disparate age groups, multiple concurrent sexual relationships and commodisation of women who can be “bought” by money and gifts.

In the final analysis, the agency of women notwithstanding, the reality is that this is a manifestation of patriarchy and persisting inequality in South Africa. Conspicuous consumption does not empower women. It opens them up for manipulation and abuse in an HIV hyper-endemic country.

The crass materialism that is flaunted in the social networks and reality TV shows like the local Footballers’ Wives and America’s Keeping Up with the Kardashians cultivates the notion that “beauty pays” more than hard work. Real beneficiaries of this political economy are macho mobile men with money with the propensity to objectify and abuse young women.

This is a public policy conundrum, the unintended consequences of opening wide the doors of culture and communication where Bongi from Nongoma arguable co-exists with Beyoncé from New York albeit in a precarious social media bubble which eventually bursts as Bongi is more likely to have a near encounter with HIV owing to her socio-economic status and prevalence of gender-based violence in her society. DM

Ngcaweni is editor of Sizonqoba: Outliving AIDS in Southern Africaavailable at the HSRC book store. He works in The Presidency and writes in his personal capacity.

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