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Article

Network Structure of an AIDS-denialist Online Community: Identifying Core Members and the Risk Group

American Behavioral Scientist. 2017. Vol. 61. No. 7. P. 688-706.
Rykov Y., Meylakhs P., Sinyavskaya Y.

With rapid growth of online social network sites, the issue of health-related online communities and its social and behavioral implications has become increasingly important for public health. Unfortunately, online communities often become vehicles for promotion of pernicious misinformation, in particular, that HIV virus is a myth (AIDS denialism). This study seeks to explore online users’ behavior and interactions within AIDS-denialist community to identify and estimate the number of those, who potentially are most susceptible to AIDS-denialist arguments—“the risk group” in terms of becoming AIDS denialists. Social network analysis was used for examining the most numerous AIDS-denialist community (over 15,000 members) in the most popular Russian SNS “VK.com.” In addition, content analysis was used for collecting data on attitudes toward AIDS-denialist arguments and participants’ self-disclosed HIV status. Two data sets were collected to analyze friendship ties and communication interactions among community members. We have identified the core of online community—cohesive and dedicated AIDS denialists, and the risk group: users who communicate with core members, and, thus, can be more susceptible to the AIDS-denialist propaganda and their health behaviors (e.g., refusing treatment). Analysis allowed to significantly reduce the target audience for possible intervention campaigns and simultaneously increase the accuracy of determining the risk group composition.