UC Davis researchers look to social media to spread cervical cancer awareness

UC Davis researchers look to social media to spread cervical cancer awareness

Social media identified as tool for health organizations

How much do you know about cervical cancer? Jingwen Zhang, an assistant professor of communications, suggested posing this question to students. Although cervical cancer is an important issue, it carries a lot of stigma because it is sexually transmitted and therefore not widely discussed, but Zhang believes that organizations can combat this by using social media to spread messages about cervical cancer prevention to a larger population. 

“Without social media, you may only get the cervical cancer prevention information from your doctor, but how many times do you see your doctor a year?” Zhang asked. “It’s not that frequent, and a lot of people don’t have a regular health care provider. [Health organizations] have to reach them in a way, and social media has come to be the most affordable and accessible way to get [that] information to individuals, especially the underserved individuals.”

In order to understand the kind of content that is “more likely to be shared by social media users,” Zhang and her team needed to make clear distinctions between two variables: the source of the message and the type of message. This helped them understand which specific factor could increase the dissemination of preventative messages. 

Urmimala Sarkar, a professor in the division of general internal medicine and associate director for vulnerable populations at UC San Francisco, discussed perceptions of what drives individuals to share information on social media.

“Most people believe that humans make decisions based on stories with emotional influence,” Sarkar said. “I thought people would be more likely to share stories they read online rather than facts, [but] I was wrong.”

Instead, it was determined that, on average, factual messages from organizations were being shared more. Although viral personal stories seem to be disseminated widely, Zhang explained that this is actually a skewed observation because these stories are only a small percentage of all personal stories posted on social media. In reality, a larger percentage of all factual messages posted on social media are shared more often.

Based on her findings, Sarkar explained that organizations can now see it is more effective to regularly share factual information rather than focus on personal stories. 

In the face of stigma surrounding discussions of cervical cancer and misinformation on the internet, Zhang wants to emphasize the amount of power young internet users have to promote accurate health information that can help their loved ones and others. 

“I think people are actually exposed to a lot of health promotion messages on the internet, and even if we don’t expect ourselves to read them really carefully, it’s helpful that […] we share it to the networks to enable the broader dissemination of messages,” Zhang said. “You have a purpose of sharing it to improve the overall public health because social media is this disseminating network — a distributing network — that information gets through by individuals sharing [it].”

Written by: Michelle Wong — science@theaggie.org