WASHINGTON – An electronic message circulating on the Internet has infected millions with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Not literally, of course.
But it asks readers to pretend the sender has the virus, and just gave it to them. Then it asks them to pass the message – and the virus – to their friends.
The message is a computer chain letter with a social agenda: to increase awareness about the spread of HIV.
Its point, said Brad Kessler, a sophomore nursing student at Syracuse University, is to show “you could contract the AIDS virus from someone you had never met.”
Kessler, 19, of Brookfield, Ct., started the mailing Dec. 7 as a project for his human sexuality class. Since then, the e- mail has been passed around by college students all over the country. Now it has gone around the world.
Each day, Kessler said he receives hundreds of electronic messages from people who received the mailing. So many that over winter break his system crashed.
Now, he said, he has to check his computer mailbox at least three times a day, using a special code to keep it from overloading.
Kessler said he has received messages from Great Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Africa and Australia.
“It’s probably going to go on until I graduate,” he said.
“One-hundred-forty out of 150 of the e-mails I get a day are different chains,” Kessler said.
“Every week or so add[s] on a million people,” he estimated.
Ben Shneiderman, head of the Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory at the University of Maryland, called the computer message “a wonderfully creative bit of electronic theater which has potential to spread messages in a positive way.”
Others aren’t so complimentary.
Tamara Horton, 22, a first-year graduate student in molecular biology at Princeton University, said she received the message from a friend but did not forward it.
“Most people do not share body fluids with all of the friends that they would typically write e-mail to. … This type of scare tactic is what turns many people to cynicism about the `AIDS epidemic,’ ” Horton said.
But Kessler is not daunted by the negative comments. He said when people react with anger, he has made his point.
Using the Internet for social activism is not new.
Shneiderman said he has seen the Internet used to protest French nuclear testing and to gather support for Bosnians and for Rwandan refugees.
“The ‘net allows individual expression in a much more flexible manner than letters to the editor or talk radio. Our times are moving more toward individual empowerment,” he said.
Kessler said about 95 percent of the mail he receives is positive, but said some people are angered by his message.
“People say, `You can’t catch AIDS through e-mail.’ They just don’t get the point,” said Kessler, whose 37-year-old uncle died of AIDS last summer.
Kessler said his uncle’s death influenced him to do the project. “He didn’t know who he got it from.”
He later added: “I’m not making light of it. I tell them about my uncle that died of it.”
It is hard to say how fast HIV can spread within a population, said Michelle Bonds, spokeswoman for the Atlanta- based Centers for Disease Control.
The estimates are that there are 40,000 to 50,000 new HIV infections a year, Bonds said. “One person at one time had to have had it, and now we’re looking at over 500,000.”
There were only five cases in 1980, she said.
“I think anything that heightens people’s awareness about a disease that is as serious as AIDS is very good,” Bonds said. She said awareness should also be coupled with prevention messages.
Many students who forwarded Kessler’s message are also receiving computer mailings about it.
Jenna Murphy, 19, a sophomore political science major at Indiana University in Bloomington, received the e-mail from Kessler, who was her friend from high school.
Murphy said she receives a lot of positive mail about the message. But some people write to tell her the message is rude.
“Scrolling through 10 pages of e-mail may seem like the biggest and most tasking event of their lives, [but] I wonder how they’d feel if they had AIDS,” Murphy said.
Kessler’s message asks people not to delete the addresses of those who have already read it. The long lists are meant to demonstrate how people with HIV can pass the virus on to many people they don’t know.
Jo Paoletti, associate professor in the Department of American Studies at the University of Maryland at College Park, spends a lot of time comparing the Internet to other forms of communication.
“I am curious as to why this works and why a chain letter doesn’t work,” she said. “I think maybe it’s the social message. … It is obviously grabbing people and making people think about the issue.”
Kessler’s teacher apparently found the project thought- provoking, too. Kessler said he got a B+ in the class, and an A on the project. -30-