PhotoYou may not think of Craigslist as social media, but it was one of the pioneers of turning user-generated content into a marketable product. Unfortunately, a new study finds it also helped spread AIDS.  

University of Minnesota researchers say that Craigslist's entry into a market results in a 15.9% increase in reported HIV cases. When mapped at the national level, more than 6,000 HIV cases annually and treatment costs estimated between $62 million and $65.3 million can be linked to the popular website.

"I actually think that the creators of Craigslist had no intent of harming society. They came in with good intentions," says Jason Chan, Assistant Professor of Information and Decision Sciences at the Carlson School of Management. "At the same time, they did not anticipate that users could use the features in an unexpected way with unintended consequences."

Chan and Professor Anindya Ghose of NYU's Stern School of Business based their claims after analyzing data in 33 states from 1999 to 2008.

After conducting a series of tests to eliminate other possible causes that might be driving the HIV trends such as increased testing in a community, the researchers discovered that the upward shift was influenced by ads in Craigslist's personals sections, not the site's escort service ads.

The finding correlates with other studies that show professional sex workers who troll for clients on the Internet are more likely to practice safe sex than amateurs who hook up through the Web. 

"Our study results suggest that there is a new social route of HIV transmission that is taking place in this digital era," says Chan. "Health care practitioners and policymakers have to look more closely at online platforms to assess how its usage may facilitate the spread of HIV and STDs across the country."

According to Chan, the paper provides practitioners with insights on how they can effectively target their efforts to reduce disease transmission facilitated through classified ad sites.

The study -- "Internet's Dirty Secret: Assessing the Impact of Online Intermediaries on HIV Transmission" -- was published in MIS Quarterly (December 2014).

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