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Relationship online! - Social Media as a meaningful tool for HIV prevention in South Africa


Girls at launch of event

Creating and running an online intervention for young people to prevent new HIV infections



Uthando Lwenene True Love is the name of a new and playful Facebook page that was launched in June this year by the Eastern Cape AIDS Council (ECAC) in South Africa. The main objective is: Creating and running an online intervention for young people to prevent new HIV infections within the Eastern Cape. The Multisectoral HIV and AIDS Prevention program (MHIVP) of GIZ supports the process of conceptualizing and running  the page with one Junior Development Advisor for one year.

Online Communication and to be more specific, communication through Social media, follows the same rules as all other forms of communication. At its core, the element of “relationship” is the determinant of whether people communicate at all and in what way. Following this principle it is possible for a meassage not to transfer any deeper content or information, but to appeal to the emotional or relational aspects of communication pathways. Considering this, it becomes interesting to discuss the phenomenon of “Liking” on Facebook. To “like” something on Facebook is for many users an expression of sympathy, loyalty, commitment or friendship. It could be argued that the act of “liking”, “sharing”, and “commenting” on Facebook reduces the extent and complexity of content to an absolute minimum in exchange for maximising its relational aspects (the underlying premesisi of social media).

This idea forms the bridge to our target group: On 14th of June the Eastern Cape AIDS Council (ECAC), through the support of GIZ launched a Facebook page which talks to young people about different issues around reproductive health. Slowly but surley the number of users and the dynamic of traffic is busy increasing. To ensure that people enjoy engaging in serious discussions we work on building a kind of everyday relationship with the users. Therefore we do two additional posts every day that don’t touch on reproductive health issues but just show: WE CARE. WE ARE HERE.

In the morning we say “Good morning. I hope you are fine” and in the evening we say “Good night”. Through doing these simple little things which just take a few seconds we ensure that we have a number of very regular users who engage with our page several times per day as if we are a becoming a constant partner for them. Furthermore this kind of relationship building makes us a credible organisationand creates a basis for listening and talking to us about problems regarding each and every issue around HIV.

Going even deeper into the world of relationship building it becomes important to understand the media practices of our users and to find out how we can create activities which are suitable to the expectations and needs young South African people have towards media usage. Very often social media is used as a space to wander around, being lead by (visual) impulses, liking this image, liking that company page, just go from one page to the next without having a rational system, looking for something entertaining and funny to share with my friends,  without knowing for what and without a defined ending point. Going online and going offline have no terminated beginning or ending. It just happens! So how can we achieve our serious and high objectives in an environment where things just happen? – This is one of our core questions and we are on good track to find answers. Our main approach in dealing with “social media-reality” is to always break complex things down to small pieces, change information transfer into little quizzes, ask for people’s opinions and experiences, and use common stereotypes as an easy access. We always allow the user to be the actor and we show our users that we appreciate their participation. This is how we are making our program suitable for their style of wandering through their individual Facebook universe.

Using Facebook as a HIV prevention tool, we try to analyse how we as ECAC can get as close as possible to our audience – this is our part of the social media-deal. In return our users trust and like us and we get the opportunity to become a credible partner for our target audience. So this is what we can get from our Facebook page: 1) An audience that experiences advise on reproductive health issues in a friendly way and not as a hierarchical educative act. 2) An audience that openly talks about youth issues and trends and thus gives us insights into the world of young South African people – and last but not least: 3) An audience is part of an important sustainable process: Through iteration of topics, facts and even words our audience slowly learns to talk openly (without being ashamed) about sexuality and related health and other issues. That means that people become enabled to talk about what they really feel and think – and this again would be part of empowerment.

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