AIDS Foundation Stirs Controversy with Dating App Campaign

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November 2, 2015; Quartz

NPQ has reported on various techniques organizations use— some ethical and some not—to spur public interest and intrigue to induce others to donate to specific causes. In particular, we pay attention whenever an organization’s tactics start to run counter to its mission.

The AIDS Healthcare Foundation has been under scrutiny for its latest campaign, which uses billboard ads to place blame on dating apps like Tinder or Grindr for contributing to the spread of sexually transmitted infections. According to AHF, the rise of STIs in the population correlates to the rise of casual, social media–enabled dating.

In the ad, silhouettes of two pairs of people are depicted. In one pair, depicting a man and woman, the word “Tinder” appears over his face and “Chlamydia” over hers. In another pair, this one of two men, “Grindr” is printed over one man’s face while the other says, “Gonorrhea.” The ads first began back in mid-September in Los Angeles, and since then, Tinder has served a cease-and-desist letter to the foundation to remove any mention of the app on its billboards.

“These unprovoked and wholly unsubstantiated accusations are made to irreparably damage Tinder’s reputation,” read the letter. “While Tinder strongly supports such testing, the billboard’s statements are not founded upon any scientific evidence and are incapable of withstanding critical analysis.” While Grindr has not confirmed since the billboards appeared that it is taking any kind of legal action, AHF President Michael Weinstein indicated at the end of September that the foundation had discussed the issue with Grindr.

“We were surprised at the approach the AHF took, and paused the campaign in order to speak with them and assess our relationship,” said a Grindr spokesperson told CNNMoney in September. “In the end, we’re all on the same page regarding this issue, as health and wellness concerns us all.”

But are these apps actually increasing the prevalence of STIs? Rhode Island and Utah health officials have voiced similar concerns as the AHF, based on studies conducted by the Rhode Island and Utah Departments of Health along with another 2014 study by researchers in California, which concluded that gay men who meet other men on hookup apps “are at greater risk for gonorrhea and chlamydia” than men who meet in person. The Utah study indicates that between 2011 and 2014, the booming use of hookup apps are a contributing factor to the 700 percent increase in the incidence of gonorrhea in the state. Similarly, Rhode Island officials also say they see a pattern between STIs and the use of the apps.

“The recent uptick in STDs in Rhode Island follows a national trend,” said the Rhode Island state health department. “The increase has been attributed to better testing by providers and to high-risk behaviors that have become more common in recent years.”

However, other researchers have taken issue with the 2014 California study because it utilized a sample of patients from a sexual health clinic, possibly slanting the study to focus on patients that engage in riskier behavior than one might find from a random sampling of app users.

Family Planning Association (FPA), a sexual health charity in England, says that there is not enough information to conclusively link the increase of individuals with STIs with their use of dating apps. “It’s more anecdotal than anything,” said the spokesperson. “The overall rates for sexually-transmitted infections have been fairly steady in the last couple of years.”

All of this is to say that the issue needs more comprehensive study. Meanwhile, it would have behooved AHF to make friends, not enemies, with Tinder, Grindr, and any other sizable hookup apps. While it’s unclear if these apps are contributing to the problem, we can be sure that they have the ability to help contain the problem.

Was the goal to attack Grindr or to help prevent the spread of STIs? With millions of users of these apps swiping left and right, the AHF could have taken a very different and more collaborative approach by partnering with these apps to better ensure the safety of their users.

For example, after several sexual assaults in multiple cities by designated and non-designated Uber drivers, the app installed security warnings and updates to help further ensure the safety of its passengers. Similarly, by encouraging these apps to start the conversation with their users about their sexual health safety, AHF could have had a much more productive campaign.—Shafaq Hasan