HIV Misinformation Online Could Have Dire Consequences

Armen Hareyan's picture
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The Internet is serving as a fertile medium for 'HIV denialists' to spread false ideas about HIV/AIDS, which could have terrible public health consequences.

Smith and co-author Steven Novell, M.D., assistant professor of neurology at Yale University School of Medicine, address the current intellectual strategies used by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) denial movement in a policy paper that appears today in the online journal PLoS Medicine.

"It's remarkable that, 23 years after the identification of HIV, there is still denial that the virus is the cause of AIDS," said Smith. But with the arrival of the Internet, HIV denialist organizations such as "Reappraising AIDS" have reignited their campaign to spread misinformation.

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There is a consensus in the scientific community that HIV is the cause of AIDS, based on more than two decades of robust research. Deniers must therefore reject this consensus, Smith and Novella write, "either by denigrating the notion of scientific authority in general, or by arguing that the mainstream HIV community is intellectually compromised."

It is therefore not surprising, the authors say, that much of the newer denial literature on the Internet reflects a basic distrust of authority and of the institutions of science and medicine. Distrusting mainstream medical practitioners, many HIV deniers turn to unproven "alternative" medicines in search of treatment.

Many members of the general public do not have the scientific background to critique the assertions put forth by these groups, say Smith and Novella. Those who believe the false information spread by HIV denialists could end up putting themselves at risk of HIV infection (e.g., by abandoning safe sex practices), while those who are already infected could end up seeking unproven, ineffective remedies.

"The effect of denial groups on public perception of HIV infection is an area ripe for careful research, as this denial can have lethal consequence," the authors write. "The scientific community must collectively defend and promote the role of science in society and combat the growing problem of scientific illiteracy."

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