Tech giants like Facebook and Instagram have a social responsibility to help combat the stigma surrounding HIV/Aids, Sir Elton John has said.
The veteran musician said social media was the “engine of future change” as he delivered the Diana, Princess of Wales lecture on HIV at the French Institute in central London.
“Companies like Facebook and Instagram cannot pretend they are purely private enterprises. I believe they have a public role and responsibility,” the 71-year-old told an audience of politicians, health workers and celebrities.
“Imagine if they put their mic behind debates that could counter ignorance. Homophobia fuels shame, isolation, cruelty and anger, and therefore HIV.
“But if we found ways to automatically respond to hatred with fact, good could be all the way around the world before falsehood even got its boots on.”
The Tiny Dancer singer also called on the “geniuses that created the industry” not to hide behind the anonymity of their digital tools.Sir Elton said the early adoption of Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) online made a “significant difference” to new diagnoses of HIV in some London clinics.
Daily PrEP, when at-risk individuals take medicines for HIV, reduces the risk of getting the virus from sex by more than 90%, according to the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.
But tech companies are not doing “nearly enough” to harness the power of their platforms to “champion humanity”.
“At a stroke, we can reach 2 billion people at a moment on Facebook. Imagine that power turned to compassion and love, injected with real humanity. Imagine if instead of all that ingenuity, brainpower and big data being deployed to turn a quick buck, it was used to turn around lives.
“How incredible if they could start with something as pernicious, as lethal, as the stigma of Aids.”
Sir Elton also paid tribute to his “exceptional” close friend Diana and her “great qualities: her compassion, her sense of duty, and her humility”.
In the late 1980s, when many still believed the disease could be contracted through casual contact, she sat on the sickbed of a man with Aids and held his hand.
“Diana acted at a time when an HIV diagnosis was a death sentence.
“For many, that gesture changed the debate. One simple handshake, one gesture, showed the world the desperate need for humanity for people living with Aids.”
Publicly and privately she supported the work of those helping patients, with late-night trips to east London’s Mildmay HIV hospice, and she served as patron of the National Aids Trust (NAT).
The lecture was launched by the NAT in 1999 as a tribute to the Princess of Wales, who was the first member of the royal family to have contact with a person suffering from HIV/Aids.
Sir Elton follows in the footsteps of Kofi Annan, former UN secretary-general, and ex-US president Bill Clinton in delivering the lecture.
He set up the Elton John Aids Foundation in 1992 to support HIV prevention and education about the virus. It has raised £300 million deployed across 23 countries, reaching seven million people.
Sir Elton was introduced to the stage by husband David Furnish.