Health and Science  

Use Social Media to Communicate Cancer Risks

It’s no revelation that social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram have changed the way we learn and communicate new information. But is it an effective way to communicate health risks associated with cancer?

In new research that appeared in the Journal of Health Communication, University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications researchers Yulia Strekalova, research assistant professor, and Janice Krieger, STEM Translational Communication Center director, found that social media could be effectively employed for health promotion and outreach efforts. Posts from health organizations raise user awareness about health risks because risk-related messages, especially links or images containing text, attract a high level of audience attention and engagement.

“Social media provide a unique channel for disseminating evidence-based information to diverse audiences and organizational and private stakeholders, thus facilitating a dialog about health and health risks,” Strekalova and Krieger said in the study.

However, disseminating health information through these wide channels isn’t without its risks. Communicating through social media could lead to misunderstanding or dramatizing the information presented.

“Lay persons rarely have the luxury of knowing and being able to analyze all risks that they encounter in great detail, and therefore they rely on heuristics and shortcuts to assess the level of risk,” the researchers warn.

In the study, Strekalova and Krieger set out to examine the audience’s role in communicating health risk in the social media environment by assessing audience engagement with Facebook posts from the National Cancer Institute (NCI,) which disseminates information about cancer prevention, treatment and advances in research. The pair gathered data from nearly 2,000 posts published on the NCI page between 2010 and 2015, incorporating the corresponding 4,500 comments, 77,000 shares and 145,000 likes from users.

Facebook posts and comments were coded based on the presence or absence of words that identify risk, such as hazard or harm. Then, 50 comments were randomly selected and evaluated.

The researchers examined what sort of NCI messages people engaged with on Facebook through shares and comments. They found that messages that conveyed risk received more engagement than those that did not, the most common being a user comment. Interestingly, the team found that videos, the most information-rich message mode, were not more effective in attracting engagement. In fact, text links and images garnered the most responses.

“While videos provide the opportunity to communicate rich information, audiences are choosing not to consume this information in full,” the researchers said.

Even though risk-related messages were posted less frequently on the NCI’s Facebook page than non-risk messages, the messages conveying risk were more likely to attract audience reaction through shares, likes and comments. Strekalova and Krieger suggest that the NCI’s Facebook feed is an effective tool in raising awareness about cancer-related risks without contributing to the dramatization of the information.

“Communication of risk-related information is intrinsic to health management, and health risk information is a necessary component of public health activities. Risk-related information can shape consumers’ experience of health and illness and have an effect on their health communication behaviors,” Strekalova and Krieger said in the study. “The study’s findings emphasize the importance of focused investigation of message design strategies and message effects on the dissemination and amplification of communication related to health risks.”

This isn’t the end of the story, however. The study notes that future research is necessary to evaluate the impact of active audience participation in the process of health related-decision making and behavior. In the meantime, health communicators can take cues from this study to incorporate risk-related messages on social media to inform targeted communities.


Posted: October 25, 2017
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