Grindr’s HIV-positive filter works just like Cerebro

A few weeks ago I ran a piece raising concerns about Grindr’s proposal to enable filtering by HIV status on its hookup app for gay and bisexual men. The story got picked up by CNN, Mic.com and the Fairfax newspapers in Australia.

My main concern was that it enables HIV-negative men to enact a kind of ‘digital quarantine’ that they may think will protect them from ever encountering a person living with HIV on the app.

While I was in London, my Grindr app updated and the filter became available. Here’s how it works: guys on the app have always been able to identify as members of different ‘Tribes’, such as Bear, Daddy, Twink and Poz.

Now, Grindr has enabled a ‘My Type’ filter that lets Premium users see only guys:

  • with photos
  • in a certain age, height, or weight range
  • of a certain ethnicity, body type or positional preference (e.g. ‘top’ or ‘bottom’)
  • who are single or not, looking for hookups or not
  • and who belong to certain Tribes

This is how an HIV-negative guy could enact digital quarantine against Poz guys:

In the first image, I’ve ticked all the Tribes except Poz — this is the ‘digital quarantine’ mode. As an educator who’s done countless hours of online outreach, my prediction is that negative guys who fear HIV will begin to pressure Poz guys to join this tribe.

In the second image, there’s something equally concerning: what we might call ‘HIV Cerebro’, after the technology used in the X-Men movies to visualise all the mutants worldwide.

Cerebro-XM.png

If there are only 3-4 guys meeting the criteria in my local area, the app will expand the search radius… When I set ‘My Type’ to include only guys in the Poz tribe, it showed me all the guys identifying as Poz in a search radius up to 17,000km away.

Many of those guys were out-‘n-proud Poz activists in London and the States, with profile headlines like [+u] meaning ‘poz, undetectable viral load’ or ‘u=u’ undetectable  = uninfectious (this is true).

But there were also a small number of guys in countries where having sex while HIV-positive is illegal even if condoms are used; and where homosexual activity is illegal.

Here’s the kicker. In the interviews I did with different media outlets, I noted that sites like DudesNude and apps like Hornet offer a similar ability to see other Poz members — but only if you join the Poz tribe yourself.

Grindr is unusual in allowing anyone to search the Poz tribe, as long as they have a Premium membership.

A further problem is that when you tick the box to ‘enter’ the Poz tribe… absolutely nothing happens (left image, below).

This is a missed opportunity on Grindr’s part. At a bare minimum, clicking the box should trigger a pop-up with information about the possibility of being identified, and identifying strategies for protecting themselves and local organisations that can provide support.

Most guys won’t need this, and might even feel it’s intrusive — but it needs to be made clear that joining the tribe makes you findable via ‘HIV Cerebro’.

This is important, given the app also allows people to list their Facebook, twitter and Instagram accounts (right image above) — linking people’s identities to their online activities, which might include chats about sexual fantasies they would never enact ‘in real life’. Such chats have been interpreted by courts and researchers alike as evidence.

In case that seems like a long-shot risk, remember that Grindr’s global equality initiative was only created in the aftermath of reports that security officials in post-revolutionary Egypt were using Grindr to identify and arrest men who have sex with men.

Grindr recently issued one-off messages to Egyptian users to warn of a similar crackdown on men who used Facebook to meet other same-sex attracted men.

Were you aware this is how the Poz tribe works? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

You can also join the discussion on the Bad Blood Facebook page.

This post has been updated to reflect a correction made by Mark ‘middle’ Hubbard (comments).

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4 thoughts on “Grindr’s HIV-positive filter works just like Cerebro

  1. Thank you for always fighting stigma and ignorance and for thinking deeply about these issues.

    FYI, BBRT (and A4A and Scruff) do NOT require users to identify themselves as HIV+positive in order to see or screen for HIV+positive users. Reviewed and re-tested all three this morning.) As a point of clarification, neither do they use any feature that I’d characterize as comparable to the tribes you describe for Grindr (I’m not a user.) The HIV status attribute (which on all three is non-binary) is simply that – a tool to facilitate self-description and searches. The default for all three is to list everyone based on proximity or location.

    I can’t speak to Grindr as I’m not a user, but as someone who has cruised online for three decades, I’ve never been pressured by any other subscriber on any other service to change any aspect of my profile – even in those instances when I chose to disclose in other ways (in discussion or face to face) vs. a profile attribute.

    Lobbying Grindr will be useful in terms of generating discussion and influencing them to think about these issues. Beyond your suggestion, I think one creative and perhaps more powerful thing Grindr and other sites could do is add pop-ups that leverage the inherent opportunity for education related to various choices users might make – in searches and profile set-up, etc.

    I also think it’s important that many + and – users find these search tools incredibly useful and empowering. When I choose to flag myself as HIV+positive, I embrace those advantages and am realistic about the responses (or ithe lack of responses) that will be a product of that choice. I counsel others to do the same. As I’ve said before, negative guys who screen me out are doing me a huge favor by helping me avoid wasting time and energy.

    I think it’s also useful to ground ourselves in the reality that even if Grindr and other apps and sites conform to the admirable ideals eloquently presented in this post, the real world result for most HIV+positive users will simply be a choice to delay the sometimes painful challenge of disclosure. That’s sad, and things are changing, but I expect it will take a long time to see a significant difference.

    • Thanks for your comment Mark. I’ll correct the reference to BBRT – I’m sure I remember some restriction but I haven’t used it in years. But there’s a big difference between it and Grindr, which has a much wider reach, and therefore reaches an audience of guys who may be positive but not as informed, practiced and confident as you are. Good educational practice takes into account the diversity of the target population, including guys who are not like you. In my previous post I acknowledged the reasons why guys might find this functionality useful – which is great – but it needs to be adopted on the basis of informed consent, because the consequences of disclosure vary drastically from place to place.

      • “But there’s a big difference between it and Grindr, which has a much wider reach”

        Very good point. While there is stigma associated with joining and using BBRT, unlike Grindr it has always felt to me like a safe space for poz guys where we are possibly in the majority and where the majority of neg members seem way more informed than elsewhere. BBRT is the only site where I feel comfortable turning a poz toggle “on”. The additional filter is that I can have my face pic as locked and only unlock it to those I feel I can more likely trust.

  2. “Good educational practice takes into account the diversity of the target population, including guys who are not like you.”

    I couldn’t agree more. Thanks again for the piece and response.

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