When Caitlyn Jenner introduced herself to the world via a Vanity Fair interview, her announcement kicked off a much larger discussion about trans issues on social media. So, when another giant personality in the world of celebrity and the tabloids, Charlie Sheen, announced that he was HIV-positive, we wondered if a similar conversation would kick off about the virus that causes AIDS.
Like Jenner, Charlie Sheen is a well-known but divisive figure. With Jenner, there is the love-hate relationship the culture seems to have with the reality show Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Sheen is also a schismatic figure, long tied to the Hollywood “bad boy” lifestyle. He smokes cigarettes, drinks, did drugs, and had many different women on his arm (sometimes at the same time).
We ran an analysis on 213,770 tweets over a period of two days, to determine what people were saying about Sheen’s announcement and how they were feeling about it. What we found was sobering.
In the above word cloud generated from phrases associated with Charlie Sheen, the result is overwhelmingly negative. Phrases like “threatened” and “be ashamed” and “blackmailed” are prominently displayed. It’s curious if this negativity reflects a stigma against the HIV-positive or if it’s merely a reaction to Sheen’s caustic public persona.
Other phrases that were majority positive, like Sheen’s catchphrase “winning” had their negative mentions as well. People mentioned the phrase a total of 1,376 times, of which 333 were neutral mentions. The catchphrase was used positively 639 times, but it was also used negatively 404 times. Other phrases, like “hope” were used almost exclusively in a positive way. Of the 1,808 people who used that term, only 19 users said the term in a negative way.
Interestingly, the phrase “skeptic” was the most-used phrase in the 213,770 tweets analyzed. When we dug into the data, we found that the same link, with almost the exact same wording was tweeted out 3,294 times. Now, if you’re guessing this is a conspiracy theory about Charlie Sheen’s HIV status, you’re only partly correct. It seems that the “article” was by a man who is skeptical that HIV/AIDS actually exists. He thinks the AIDS epidemic started as, and this is not a joke, as a bad reaction to popular drugs at the time. So either this terribly wrong individual has a not un-sizable Twitter following or someone spammed Twitter with a link to his nonsense.
This word cloud shows themes related to the Charlie Sheen social media data we mined. Naturally, HIV-positive was the largest group – a total of 12,773 tweets – and while it was (obviously) mentioned negatively more than it was positively, the vast majority (12,552) were used neutrally.
The most positively-mentioned theme (with not a single negative mention out of 190 total) was about Sheen being the son of actor Martin Sheen. His father is known for his roles in classics like Apocalypse Now or America’s favorite fictional President on The West Wing (or the voice of “the Illusive Man” in the Mass Effect video game series). People seem to love to hate celebrities, but it’s apparently impossible to think of Sheen as a member of a family, as someone’s son, and not feel positively about that.
The question we set out to examine was the conversation surrounding HIV/AIDS in the modern context. What we actually discovered, it turns out, raises less questions about the disease and more about how people across the globe feel about celebrities, even in situations that demand compassion.