Going Viral for Good

Just two weeks before the tragedy in Orlando, Florida, where 50 people were murdered in a nightclub, President Obama responded to a question about his views on gun control. Despite being on the not-so-mainstream PBS news channel, the video quickly reached more than 800,000 viewers.

When you think about viral media, you typically think about cat videos, right? And maybe music videos, too, as long as the instruments are being played by cats. But viral media isn't just about cat videos, as we know from the Arab Spring, the Obama video, and our Institute’s work on predicting diseases. Viral media can also be used for good.

How can social media be used to get people to do good things?

In one study, 120 African-American and Latino men who have sex with men (MSM) were randomly assigned to join one of two private online community groups on Facebook. One was an HIV intervention group, designed to get participants to test for HIV, while the other was a general health (control) group. Throughout the 12-week study, which is known as HOPE (Harnessing Online Peer Education), participants were connected with peer group role models who encouraged them to get tested for HIV.

Over the course of the study, participants shared information about being gay and their views about HIV testing. The act of sharing health information created an online community that brought together people from different stigmatized groups.

What did we find? People in the intervention group were two to three times more likely to get an HIV test. In other words, people who had access to the HOPE community group were more likely to change their behavior than people who did not join a HOPE community. It was inspiring to see people actively communicate with each other and help build an organic, real-world community from a social media forum.

But our findings from the HOPE study don’t apply just to testing for HIV—the technology can be applied much more broadly. I use the term “HOPEify” to describe how to make a technology engaging and able to create positive social change.  

Now, how does this relate to viral media?

Viral media isn’t just about cat videos or nonsense topics. It’s a powerful tool that can be used to create positive social change in the world. There’s a science behind how to do this, which I wrote about in an article for TechCrunch. We need to start leveraging social media for social good and improving the world to prevent future incidents like Orlando.

I’ve done several research studies with the LGBT community, so it was comforting to hear these words from President Obama:

The fact that [the shooting] took place at a club frequented by the LGBT community I think is also relevant. We’re still looking at all the motivations of the killer. But it’s a reminder that regardless of race, religion, faith or sexual orientation, we’re all Americans, and we need to be looking after each other and protecting each other at all times in the face of this kind of terrible act.

His statement has been viewed nearly a million times on YouTube.

Sean Young PhD

UCLA Center for Digital Behavior, Medical Plaza, Los Angeles, CA, 90024, United States

Sean Young, PhD, MS is the Executive Director of the UCLA Center for Digital Behavior. I'm a scientist, innovator, and UCLA medical school professor. I study the science behind human digital behavior (see digitalbehavior.ucla.edu for more info about this field of research).I also assemble technology teams and solutions to improve UCLA Family Medicine patient care. For more info or to contact me: www.SeanYoungPhD.com