Three thousand people between the ages of 15 and 24 are infected with HIV every day. How can AIDS prevention efforts reach people in this group? The United Nations is testing out a new strategy: Ask them.
Last week, UNAIDS launched CrowdOutAIDS, a massive crowdsourcing effort that asks youth to direct the group's worldwide AIDS prevention efforts in the coming years. CrowdOutAIDS takes the form of eight online discussion forums in six different languages, each targeted at engaging a different demographic around the world. The forums live on a constellation of popular social networking sites—primarily Facebook, but also Chinese social network Renren and popular Russian site Vkontakte.
“We wanted to reach young people online where they’re already hanging out,” says UNAIDS Social Media Officer Mikaela Hildebrand. But “we’re not interested in just having a conversation for the sake of conversation," she adds. "We’re not asking people to just ‘like’ a Facebook group. We want to use these tools to do something radically different for this organization. ... We want to take them through a virtual policy process."
Through CrowdOutAIDS, under-30 activists around the world can participate in casual “awareness raising” by spreading news of the project to their social networks. Others can engage more seriously by joining the forum discussions, where participants are asked to help the UN "develop strategies, solve problems, or propose relevant and fresh ideas." Each forum is staffed with “community mobilizers” to help moderate the discussions and reach out to new participants. Down the road, members of the community will be elected to form a “virtual drafting group” to synthesize those ideas into action items for the U.N. to apply toward its ambitious prevention goal: reduce sexual transmission of HIV by 50 percent by 2015.
UNAIDS recognizes the need for "a whole new wave of activism to push government to make that happen," Hildebrand says. To recruit new young thinkers on the AIDS crisis, UNAIDS has reached beyond youth AIDS organizations to recruit participants from a diverse network of student unions, women’s groups, and human rights organizations around the world. In the past week, 1,500 people have signed on to engage with the project, but the effort still faces some serious barriers to participation. “Some places where new HIV infections are really high, there is very little access to internet. That’s been a big criticism of the project," says Hildebrand. To get offline youth involved, "We are mobilizing a network of volunteers to host offline meeting in those settings, then feed information in from people who don’t have access to computers.”
The people who have logged on are already weighing in. "I've never seen the government give any opportunities for youth to be involved," one user wrote on the project's Africa forum. "Any attempt I have made to get involved especially at grassroots & community level projects has been met with skepticism and suspicion." Says Hildebrand, "In the first week we’ve had some really good responses, and some negative ones, and that’s important as well.”