New Research Leverages Social Media to Better Estimate MSM Populations

Published: February 9, 2018

MSMGF recently released a report in conjunction with partners at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, Hornet Gay Social Network, The Foundation for AIDS Research, Enda-Santé, and the Rollins School of Public Health to use data from social media to better estimate populations of gay and bisexual men in a number of PEPFAR countries ahead of the upcoming Country Operation Planning (COP) process.

Population Size Estimation of Gay and Bisexual Men and Other Men Who Have Sex With Men Using Social Media-Based Platforms

Stefan Baral, Rachael M Turner, Carrie E Lyons, Sean Howell, Brian Honermann, Alex Garner, Robert Hess III, Daouda Diouf, George Ayala, Patrick S Sullivan, & Greg Millett

Gay, bisexual, and other cisgender men who have sex with men (GBMSM) are disproportionately affected by the HIV pandemic. Traditionally, GBMSM have been deemed less relevant in HIV epidemics in low- and middle-income settings where HIV epidemics are more generalized. This is due (in part) to how important population size estimates regarding the number of individuals who identify as GBMSM are to informing the development and monitoring of HIV prevention, treatment, and care programs and coverage. However, pervasive stigma and criminalization of same-sex practices and relationships provide a challenging environment for population enumeration, and these factors have been associated with implausibly low or absent size estimates of GBMSM, thereby limiting knowledge about the dynamics of HIV transmission and the implementation of programs addressing GBMSM.

Objective:

This study leverages estimates of the number of members of a social app geared towards gay men (Hornet) and members of Facebook using self-reported relationship interests in men, men and women, and those with at least one reported same-sex interest. Results were categorized by country of residence to validate official size estimates of GBMSM in 13 countries across five continents.

Methods:

Data were collected through the Hornet Gay Social Network and by using an a priori determined framework to estimate the numbers of Facebook members with interests associated with GBMSM in South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Mauritania, The Gambia, Lebanon, Thailand, Malaysia, Brazil, Ukraine, and the United States. These estimates were compared with the most recent Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and national estimates across 143 countries.

Results:

The estimates that leveraged social media apps for the number of GBMSM across countries are consistently far higher than official UNAIDS estimates. Using Facebook, it is also feasible to assess the numbers of GBMSM aged 13-17 years, which demonstrate similar proportions to those of older men. There is greater consistency in Facebook estimates of GBMSM compared to UNAIDS-reported estimates across countries.

Conclusions:

The ability to use social media for epidemiologic and HIV prevention, treatment, and care needs continues to improve. Here, a method leveraging different categories of same-sex interests on Facebook, combined with a specific gay-oriented app (Hornet), demonstrated significantly higher estimates than those officially reported. While there are biases in this approach, these data reinforce the need for multiple methods to be used to count the number of GBMSM (especially in more stigmatizing settings) to better inform mathematical models and the scale of HIV program coverage. Moreover, these estimates can inform programs for those aged 13-17 years; a group for which HIV incidence is the highest and HIV prevention program coverage, including the availability of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), is lowest. Taken together, these results highlight the potential for social media to provide comparable estimates of the number of GBMSM across a large range of countries, including some with no reported estimates.

Read the Full Publication Here

Baral S, Turner RM, Lyons CE, Howell S, Honermann B, Garner A, Hess III R, Diouf D, Ayala G, Sullivan PS, Millett G Population Size Estimation of Gay and Bisexual Men and Other Men Who Have Sex With Men Using Social Media-Based Platforms JMIR Public Health Surveill 2018;4(1):e15

URL: http://publichealth.jmir.org/2018/1/e15/

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