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  • What if AIDS started in the Internet era?

       February 25, 2009

    I've spent the last couple of days re-reading And The Played On. I still think Randy Shilt's book about AIDS is the greatest piece of journalism in modern history. If you haven't read it, you should.

    Anyway, reading the book again made me wonder about how different the early days of AIDS would have been in the Internet era.

    First of all, the early days of AIDS are a prime example of how the "legitimate" mainstream media's gatekeepers can wreck havoc. Writing about one of the first CBS news stories about AIDS, Shilt says:

    Of all of the sentence in this story, probably none was so pointedly directed at the fundamental problem than Rather's own lead-in, "you rarely hear a thing about it." As managing editor of the "CBS Nightly News," Rather passed the news judgment that made AIDS a disease that one rarely heard anything about. Three years later, television commentators would still be talking about AIDS as that disease you rarely heard anything about, as if they were helpless bystanders and not the very people who themselves had decreed the silence in the public media.

    Imagine an epidemic like AIDS striking today. You wouldn't have to wait for the New York Times to write about it. You'd be reading about it in blogs, in forums, on Facebook. Hell, if you wanted to, you could read about the first cases in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. The internet is access to knowledge - something that was tragically lacking about AIDS in the early 1980s. Think about it, MMWR was mailed out to clinics and hospitals every week back then. Doctors and nurses were probably the only people that saw it. Now, anyone can read it pretty much anywhere and anytime they choose. Isn't that amazing?

    To be sure, there would be lots of crazy theories about the disease online. But there were lots of crazy theories without the internet. At least today, in the midst of all of the noise, you'd have a chance of finding some truth and taking some steps to protect yourself. For example, imagine that you needed a blood transfusion in 1982. Would it change your actions and demands if you knew the risks that entailed? Of course it would.

    Likewise, I'd like to think that exposure to information would not only have affected the public, but also their government. In the early 1980s, the government basically held all of their information about AIDS. Some officials feared scaring and/or offending gays, others had a vested interest in downplaying AIDS in order to keep budgets down or making sure funds weren't diverted to another organization. I think an epidemic like AIDS today would cause a bottom up demand for action, rather than a top down suppression of it.

    Just writing the words "top down suppression" make me sad. I love and admire Ronald Reagan, but AIDS spread on his watch and he and his administration have to shoulder some of the blame. Having read enough about Reagan and by Reagan, I have to believe that if had been honestly confronted early on about AIDS he would have done more. Whatever you believe about the man, he certainly had a good heart and had proven before that whatever he was, he wasn't a homophobe. Being a conservative isn't about not spending money when needed, it's about spending it wisely and efficiently. In the case of a worldwide epidemic, even the staunchest conservative would agree that institutions like the CDC and NIH are the places to turn.

    Basically, the internet makes it harder to tell a President or a top official just what he or she wants to hear. Like any other individual, they too now have the ability to get their news from thousands of different sources.

    It's ironic that those of us in marketing talk about the viral element of the internet, isn't it? The same forces that spread the "Kittens, Inspired by Kittens" video to over 2 million people since September, are the same forces that could have stopped a virus in its tracks much sooner.


    Posted by at February 25, 2009 09:01 PM

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