Sir Elton John: Facebook and Twitter execs have a responsibility to help us end HIV/AIDS

Sir Elton John has called on social media giants to implement bold new policies to tackle ignorance and hatred, to end HIV/AIDS once and for all.

The singer, LGBT rights campaigner and Elton John AIDS Foundation founder was delivering the National AIDS Trust’s Diana, Princess of Wales Lecture on HIV when he directly called tech companies to move towards policies of compassion to do good in the world.

The veteran activist first paid a moving tribute to his late personal friend Princess Diana, who is remembered for her pioneering work during the AIDS crisis.

Sir Elton John with Princess Diana

Sir Elton said: “I want to pay tribute to her great qualities – her compassion, her sense of duty, and her humility. That is the character who led her back in 1987, when the argument was raging and prejudice was having its moment, to calmly shake hands with a gay man dying of AIDS.

“We knew and she knew that the disease could not be communicated by hand, and yet there was a stigma, and the stigma said otherwise. Diana acted at a time when an HIV diagnosis was a death sentence.

“Around the globe, families were being ripped apart and public sympathy did not match private pain. For so many that gesture changed the debate. It was an act of kindness. One simple handshake showed the world the desperate need for humanity for people living with AIDS. Diana had power and chose to use it for the good of others.”

Princess Diana (Getty)

He added: “Diana was just one individual, albeit an exceptionally gifted and well-placed one, but technology has put that power into everybody’s hands in a new and transformative way.

“We now have the power and technology to do good on a greater scale than ever before, and we must seize that opportunity. Diana would expect no less.”

Sir Elton continued: “Social media has become too often an arena that amplifies all our conflicts and builds walls between us.

“Prejudice we thought had disappeared has crawled out from under stones. People are using the privilege of anonymity to say things they would never say in person, or to boast about their privilege in ways we thought we left behind a century ago.

“We are in real danger of losing the essential element of human connection in our society… but with care and a new understanding of its potential, social media could be an engine of change. We can and should use hyperconnectiveness to help people to really help themselves.”

Sir Elton John (Courtesy Harry Richards/National AIDS Trust)

He added: “For example, the early adoption of PrEP before it was available on the NHS made a significant difference to new diagnoses of HIV in central London clinics. A small group of people found ways to link the real world and the virtual world.

“They connected worried individuals with the means to buy a drug online that would protect them and those they loved in the real world. It worked, both the treatment and the method of spreading information.

“PrEP is undoubtedly an essential part of our arsenal against HIV. We need its use to spread far and fast.

“In Ukraine, I saw an app that offers people an HIV risk score, and then links them to testing sites anywhere in the country, or to test in their own home. It is finding double the number of people living with HIV than conventional testing.

“These types of collaborations makes great progress possible, but we can only realise this vision if the tech companies step up. At the moment, I don’t think they’re doing nearly enough.”

Sir Elton continued: “Companies like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram cannot pretend they are purely private enterprises. I believe they have a public role and a public responsiblity.

“I am used to putting pressure on pharmaceutical companies. I am used to putting pressure on governments.

“We have had some success with both. The pressure now needs to be applied to the tech giants – not because I think they are bad, but because they have the capacity to do so much good.

“Imagine if they put their might behind ways to counter ignorance. In so many countries, homosexuality gets wrapped up with paedophilia, even though there is no basis in fact.”

Sir Elton John (Courtesy Harry Richards/National AIDS Trust)

He added: “Homophobia fuels shame, isolation, cruelty and anger, and therefore HIV. But if we found ways to automatically respond to hatred with fact, the truth could be all the way around the world before falsehood has even got its boots on.

“Let’s do something dramatic and remind ourselves of the incredible reach of the connected world.

“At a stroke we can reach two billion people in a single moment on Facebook.

“Imagine if instead of all that ingenuity, brainpower and big data being deployed to turn elections or turn a quick buck, it was used to turn aout lives. Imagine if all that power to connect turned into billions of handshakes, all over the world.”

“Every revolutionary change brings with it huge moral choices. Digital technology is our greatest yet, and perhaps will be our greatest ever.

“As we enter a new era, the geniuses who created this industry must not hide behind its anonymity.

“They must use their power to help shape a new digital world.

“How incredible if they could start with something as pernicious, as lethal, as the stigma of AIDS.”

Sir Elton John with husband David Furnish (Courtesy Harry Richards/National AIDS Trust)

Elsewhere in his speech Sir Elton addressed regressive racial policies in the US, blaming them for a rise in HIV infections among black and minority ethnic men.

He also criticised cuts to sexual health services, saying: “HIV prevention activity has been subject to savage cuts…In the two years between 2015 and 2017 there was a 28 per cent cut – and the reductions were especially sharp in services for black, Asian and ethnic minority groups and drug users.”

Professor Jane Anderson, Chair of NAT said: “Sir Elton John: Facebook and Twitter bosses have a responsibility to help us end HIV/AIDSIt has been very important for those of us who have been working in the field of HIV for decades to hear Sir Elton’s reflections on the progress that has been made, both in the UK and globally.

“The National AIDS Trust looks forward to playing a key role in helping to promote Sir Elton’s message of making personal connections, and forging partnerships that allow us to harness new technologies for HIV prevention and treatment. And, crucially, to strengthen the fight against the sigma and the misinformation that is at the heart of almost every obstacle we face.”

Sir Elton was introduced by his husband David Furnish, Chairman of EJAF (Elton John AIDS Foundation).

David Furnish introduces his husband, Sir Elton John (Courtesy Harry Richards/National AIDS Trust)

Furnish said: “There is still so much misunderstanding about HIV and AIDS that propels stigma and hatred. Beyond the health community, there’s also still so little understanding of how far we have come and how promising an AIDS free future really is.

“It was inspiring to hear Elton call for a greater sense of kindness and human connection in the fight against AIDS. I hope his words can help catalyse new initiatives, especially in the digital sphere.”