Internet social support groups as moral agents: The ethical dynamics of HIV+ status disclosure

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This paper examines how, on Internet HIV/AIDS support groups, participants discuss the ethics of disclosing HIV seropositivity to partners. The data consist of all mentions of disclosure culled from over 16,000 pages overall of posts from 16 different groups, hosted on seven separate sites. The paper focuses on two main questions. First, apart from providing support and information, did the groups also debate moral dilemmas (and, despite groups' common perception as 'safe spaces' for non-judgmental exchanges, did these discussions include moral judgments and conflicts)? Secondly, did use of this new medium generate a new, alternative ethical discourse, or merely replicate existing discourses? The data demonstrate that online support groups did engage in debating, and trying verbally to enforce, certain views of the ethics of seropositivity disclosure. The most common view advocated full disclosure, though a range of positions existed. Unlike with most online support groups described elsewhere, these discussions often included harshly-expressed moral judgments. The groups did not generate a truly new, alternative discourse, but served as clearinghouses for and transmitters of existing 'off-line' discourses, both mainstream and alternative. Implications and limitations of the present study, and areas for further research, are discussed.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1043-1058
Number of pages16
JournalSociology of Health and Illness
Issue number7
StatePublished - Nov 2007


  • AIDS
  • Disclosure
  • Ethics
  • HIV
  • Internet
  • Support group


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