Medill Newsmakers: Online misinformation jeopardizing sun safety

By Drake Wilson
Medill Reports

With summer fast approaching, Chicagoans are ready to pack their beach bags and head to the lake. But online misinformation regarding sun safety may have some people leaving their sunscreen at home.


DRAKE WILSON: Welcome back to Medill Newsmakers, I’m Drake Wilson. With summer fast approaching, Chicagoans are ready to pack their beach bags and head to the lake. But online misinformation regarding sun safety may have some people leaving their sunscreen at home.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, most skin cancers are caused by overexposure to ultraviolet light.

DR. AMY DERICK: The primary cause of skin cancer is excessive exposure to the sun, both from artificial sources such as tanning beds, but also from, you know, the regular sun outside. You know, other risk factors include having a history of sunburns, family history of skin cancer, weakened immune system and certain other types of things.

WILSON: But social media posts by self-described holistic health coaches are spreading a contradicting and dangerous message, claiming that the sun does not cause skin cancer. These posts typically promote the sun’s healing properties and argue that skin cancer is a modern phenomenon instead caused by poor diet and sunscreen.

DERICK: Sun damage causes skin cancer because UV radiation causes DNA mutations in cells. And once those mutations accumulate, they can grow and metastasize, which is what cancer does.

WILSON: As the American Cancer Society notes, humans and animals have had cancer throughout recorded history, with the oldest description of the disease dating back to about 3000 B.C. As for claims that sunscreen is more cancerous than protective, the science begs to differ. But a 2021 study by independent laboratory Valisure did identify traces of benzene in 78 sunscreens and after-sun products. Benzene is a known carcinogen linked to blood cancers like leukemia, and the study did lead to various recalls. 

DERICK: The discovery of benzene, trace amounts of benzene, was concerning, but it’s important to note that most of the sunscreens that are out there are safe. And we know that the sun is carcinogenic. So I would recommend that people wear sunscreen. And if you wanted to be more conservative, there’s two basic kinds of sunscreen. There’s chemical sunscreens, and then there’s physical sunscreens. And so the physical ones are basically zinc- and titanium-based. And what they do is they just reflect the light off of the skin. They’re like little mirrors, and they reflect the light off. And so those have been shown to be very safe and effective. I think the best thing is sun avoidance. If you can avoid the sun, that’s the best. And if you can’t avoid the sun, the easiest thing is to wear sun-protective clothing. If you do have skin that is exposed to the sun, we recommend SPF 30 applied like every hour or two. And then of course, avoiding tanning beds, which can also cause skin cancer. 

WILSON: While a quick Google search can quickly debunk the claims that the sun doesn’t cause skin cancer, such misinformation is easily spread across social media. I sat down with social media expert Scott Kleinberg to discuss how to combat this type of health misinformation. 

SCOTT KLEINBERG: I’ve seen it all. And what I’ve seen is really, really alarming, to be honest with you.

WILSON: Kleinberg is well-aware of the misinformation online regarding sun safety, but to him it’s just par for the course at this point.

KLEINBERG: Oh, I mean, I’m familiar with those posts that you’re talking about, and I’ve seen those posts before, and I’ve seen people make fun of SPF factors and all those kinds of crazy things. And honestly, my reaction is it doesn’t surprise me. Terrible reaction. Right? It doesn’t surprise me because that’s what I’m expecting these days. I don’t necessarily think it’s that there are so many people out there that don’t believe that using sunscreen is good for you. I think it’s people who actually want to put that stuff out there to set up a false narrative. And obviously, I don’t have to tell you that’s disturbing and alarming in so many ways. But if I had to sum up what you’re saying, I think the reason, and I’ll say it again, I think the reason why people do it is because everything that’s put in place right now allows them to do it easily. 

WILSON: According to Kleinberg, what allows people to spread misinformation so easily boils down to shrinking attention spans and prioritizing shock value.

KLEINBERG: On social media, we do not read, we scan. If you remember one thing about social media, it really has to be that we’re all pressed for time. There’s this amazing stat out there that says, in your Facebook feed used to say, and I want to say this is 10 years ago, used to say we have three seconds in order to catch somebody’s attention in a Facebook feed. So when we’re talking about content creation, we were talking about those three seconds to get people interested. Ever since then, that number has changed, and it is now 1.7 seconds. That is because people are pressed for time or so they say. So what’s happening is I don’t think you’re getting people out there that are like, “Haha, I want to say that sunscreen is not going to help people.” I think it’s like, “Oh, this is shocking. I have to show my friends,” they hit retweet, they don’t understand what it means, and the cascade of events that take place when they start by doing that and because algorithms are set up the way they are show people the most shocking things or what they think is the most shocking things. We end up in a situation like you’re talking about now.

WILSON: But when it comes to identifying misinformation and preventing its spread, Kleinberg has several pieces of advice.

KLEINBERG: Number one, do not immediately share something you see on social media, blanketly just click a button. Don’t ever do that. I think if everybody were to take 15 to 30 seconds to Google what they are about to share on social media, the world would be a better place. One of the other things you want to be very careful of is when you are sharing something from another social media account — Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, doesn’t matter — take a look at how long that account has been online. Take a look at how many followers that account has. There is a big difference between a celebrity who’s out there saying, “I don’t believe in vaccines” and an account that was just created 14 hours ago that has one message and the message is “sunscreen doesn’t work.”

WILSON: Despite seeing plenty of room for improvement, Kleinberg is hopeful for the future of social media.

KLEINBERG: I do believe that the social media we have now, for whatever reason, is broken. I do believe, but I don’t believe it’s necessarily beyond repair. I think there are ways to still make good things happen. And I think when we’re talking about topics like gun safety or anything to do in the health space, I think it’s much more important to try to find these positive and accurate messages and get people to share them, because there’s still a lot to be said for how fast the speed of information moves on social media.

WILSON: As you soak up the summer sun, be sure to protect your skin and apply that sunscreen. And while you’re at it, pay attention to your social media hygiene. For Medill Newsmakers, I’m Drake Wilson.

Drake Wilson is a video/broadcast graduate student at Medill. You can follow him on Twitter at @DrakeyWilson.