University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researchers and colleagues have discovered that celebrity status may not be necessary to make a public health concern go viral on social media. In a new study, they showed just how effective one person can be in generating awareness about skin cancer—when his or her post and picture is shared thousands of times on Facebook, that is.
In April 2015, Tawny Dzierzek, a nurse from Kentucky, shared a selfie on Facebook after a recent skin cancer treatment. A former frequent user of tanning beds, Dzierzek was first diagnosed with skin cancer at age 21. By age 27, she had had basal cell carcinoma five times, and squamous cell carcinoma once. Her post was shared 50,000 times on social media in less than a month, and her story was picked up by media outlets ranging from CNN to BuzzFeed.
Dzierzek’s post, and the subsequent media coverage of her story, proved to be powerful tools in raising awareness about skin cancer. Researchers report in the journal Preventive Medicine that Google searches about skin cancer reached near-record levels when media coverage about Dzierzek’s selfie was at its peak.
For the study, UNC Lineberger’s Seth Noar, PhD, a professor in the UNC School of Media and Journalism and the study’s lead author, collaborated with several colleagues across the country with expertise in digital surveillance methods. The team evaluated Facebook shares and media coverage, as well as trends in online Google searches for the words “skin” and “cancer” on the date that Dzierzek initially posted the photo on Facebook (April 25, 2015) through the period when media coverage of her story peaked and then declined.
Not only did the public have more interest in skin cancer, but they were also substantially more interested in skin cancer prevention and the link between tanning and skin cancer. Online searches for skin cancer prevention were as much as 232% higher than expected, while queries about skin cancer and tanning were as much as 489% higher.