San Mateo County apparently has a thing for fake Grindr profiles. Or at least its health officials do, as they've reportedly been setting up phony accounts on the hookup app, complete with fake photos. The simple explanation for their actions is that for the last couple of years, our neighbor to the south has been working on a new strategy to promote HIV testing in the MSM community – that’s clinical shorthand for “men who have sex with men." Counselors set up these dummy accounts on Grindr in order to talk people into getting tested more regularly.
The Bay Area Reporter is not pleased, but Darryl Lampkin, San Mateo County health department’s prevention supervisor, claims it isn't a deceptive move because the concocted users never initiate contact and always fess up to who they really are.
But it is deceptive. It’s also patronizing, weirdly elaborate – and for Grindr users, something of a major buzzkill. Who wants to click on a hot dude’s profile only to find that it’s actually someone in an office who assumes you’re too irresponsible to take care of yourself and wants to give you a little talking-to about safe sex? San Mateo County claims it has reached five times the number of people this way, but personally, if I messaged someone saying, “WOOF! You’re fucking HOT!” and got a reply like, “Hi! I’m Caitlyn from San Mateo County’s public health department. Do you know your status?” I'd be pretty embarrassed, and would probably just hit delete.
Would overeager public health officials worried about obesity consider fake Instagram accounts to post alluring pics of nutritious meals, following users who have a high BMI in order to chat about high-fructose corn syrup?
In the county’s defense, San Mateo is a highly suburban region near three major cities with high LGBT populations, but lacking in gay bars or many places where gay men congregate in public. Campaigns like San Francisco’s initiative of parking mobile testing vans on 18th and Collingwood Streets staffed with friendly volunteers aren’t really an option in, say, Half Moon Bay. And, despite 30-plus years of education, HIV is still being spread – and disproportionately among young men of color.
Still, for all the gains made in demystifying HIV/AIDS and reducing the stigma of being positive – to say nothing of the leaps in extending the lives of HIV patients – the disease is still treated as a unique public health emergency that requires decisive action, no matter how corrosive such policing may be to public trust. Would overeager public health officials worried about obesity consider fake Instagram accounts to post alluring pics of nutritious meals, following users who have a high BMI in order to chat about high-fructose corn syrup? Probably not.
I asked Dr. Christopher White, a San Francisco-based sexual health consultant who works on LGBT issues, for his take on San Mateo's move. He told me, “I don't believe that we have a responsibility to attempt to stop HIV transmission and encourage testing at all possible costs, including deception. I applaud the San Mateo Department of Public Health's innovation, but what they’re doing borders on being unethical.”
Grindr also doesn't approve. While its press office noted that it works with several HIV prevention and awareness groups, it also told me, “the most effective approach is in partnering with organizations to educate users via events and targeted messaging rather than through Grindr profiles.”
Beyond mere terms of service violations, this is a breach of an online community’s norms, and a reminder that gay men’s sexuality is still always suspect.