Innocent Technology? How HIV+ MSM College Students See the Homosexual Social Networking Software (SNS)


College student was the group with the fastest rise in HIV infection recently in China, with 90% of newly infected are men who have sex with men(MSM). The development of social networking software(SNS) in digital age provided an important dating platform for gay community. One biggest homosexual SNS had about 32 million registered users in mainland China. Some studies believed that the management of homosexual SNS should be strengthened for the reasons that it promoted casual sex and the spread of AIDS, especially among young students.

Based on interviews of five college students infected HIV by homosexual behavior that dating on SNS, this study tried to find out user’s views on homosexual SNS, whether they thought their infection was caused by this digital media, specifically.

The face to face interviews were done individually during 2014-2016 with the help of local CDC (center for disease control and prevention) in Beijing and Nanjing; a semi-structured questionnaire was implemented. All interviewees were beyond the age of 18 and were informed the purpose of the research and could quit the interview independently at any time.

Interviews found that all the respondents used SNS as a tool to meet new partners and believed that SNS did provide some convenience for casual sexual behavior; some argued that SNS should be partly responsible for their infections. But it was worth noting that they did not consider the SNS had the 'original sin'; they charged their infections mainly upon the lack of knowledge and lack of vigilance, even being deliberately transmitted. All respondents maintained that SNS protected the social interaction rights for gay marginal group.

The five cases in this study were representative although the very limited “sample size”. All the respondents were college students at that time, used the homosexual SNS, and had more than one sexual partner on the software. By this studies, it can be argued that any attempt to shut down these social media platforms with the aim of cutting off HIV transmission was untenable, not only because SNS made it easier for public health workers reach the target group for intervention, but also because the infected users did not entirely blame it. 

Meanwhile, however, this study highlighted dilemmas in the relations of digital SNS and HIV prevention. Firstly, the neutrality technology did not means that technology was innocent, the application of technology in fact embodied value orientations in the perspective of philosophy of technology; social software operators therefore should more explicitly indicate the risk of casual sexual behavior, instead of hesitating in the contradiction between the risk instructions and user experience. Secondly, this study raised a greater challenge to health information communicators from the perspective of health communication. Were these college students truly short of HIV/AIDS knowledge? Should we prevent HIV infections by stimulating vigilance or arousing fear? What were the relations between anti-discrimination messages and keeping vigilance? These were the questions to be further discussed.