Can Twitter and Facebook Help Fight Breast Cancer?

Twitter and other social media sites are often perceived as the ultimate navel-gazing tools. Seemingly a narcissist’s dream, many think that Facebook status updates and the 140-character Twitter messages (known as “tweets”) are really just boring play-by-plays of daily life—I had granola for breakfast! I’m stuck in traffic!

But Laurie Brosius, 31, isn’t buying it. Brosius, a business analyst in Dallas, used Twitter to raise $6,000 for a walk for breast cancer research in 2008. “Fifty percent of that came from online strangers,” she says. She was able to reach those people in part because her Twitter followers re-tweeted her messages.

In 2004, Brosius started blogging about her upcoming wedding. But after she married, she felt a key person was missing from the happy picture—her husband’s mother, who had died of breast cancer at age 48 when her husband was 20 years old. “I felt like I missed out on having her in my life,” says Brosius. “I felt cheated.”

She wanted to raise money for breast cancer research, so she participated in a three-day walk and fund-raiser, but felt she could do more. She had used Twitter to raise a small sum for that first walk, but for the second walk she relied mainly on tweets to direct people to the donation website.

(Anyone can see breast cancer–related tweets by typing #breastcancer into Twitter’s search field.)

Brosius still blogs and says that breast cancer organizations’ websites are great places to donate. However, Brosius says, they only reach a specific crowd—those already interested in the topic.

“[Social media sites] are reaching people who might not be specifically looking for that kind of information,” she explains. “They’re reaching everyone.”


Is brevity the key to charity?
In a busy world, Twitter posts are succinct and to the point, and that’s one of the main reasons they’re so successful in charity promotion, says Adam Hirsch, the chief operations officer of, a social media blog. Navigating websites can be time-consuming, notes Hirsch. Twitter, however, states a user’s case in no more than 140 characters. “It’s a message you know people will read because, face it, it’s only 140 characters,” he says.

With Twitter, users can interact one-on-one, but they can also broadcast a message to many followers. Even if an individual doesn’t have a lot of followers (say, just family and friends), those people can re-tweet that message in outgoing concentric circles of social contacts—potentially reaching thousands.

“With social media, you have the ability to spread a message with like-minded individuals pretty rapidly and virally to a targeted audience that is receptive to this message,” Hirsch explains. is leveraging its social media savvy through its Summer of Social Good, which is an online charitable campaign. The site is raising money for four big charities: the Humane Society (you can search for @HumaneSociety on Twitter): LiveStrong, the Lance Armstrong Foundation (@LiveSTRONG); OxfamAmerica, which seeks to end poverty (@OxfamAmerica); and the World Wildlife Fund (@WWF_Climate).

The idea got started last year when Mashable founder Pete Cashmore tweeted on his birthday, asking followers to donate to Charity: Water in lieu of birthday gifts. He raised $10,000 in a little over a day.

“I thought, ‘This is definitely an interesting way to use social media,’” says Hirsch. “It’s time to give back and to really try to make a big difference.” Mashable’s Social Media for Social Good campaign ends on August 28.

Peg Mulligan, 40, is a content developer in Beverly, Mass., who raises awareness of breast cancer via Twitter, by tweeting (or re-tweeting) fundraising initiatives, blog posts, and other relevant links. Although she has breast cancer in her family and cares about the topic, she says she doesn’t necessarily want to think about it all the time. That’s one reason people may not seek out traditional breast cancer donation channels, she says.

Unlike such message boards and topic-specific websites, Mulligan says, Twitter is a “gentler way of reaching people” because it indirectly grabs users’ attention in a stream of other topics.


Facebook vs. Twitter
Mashable’s Hirsch prefers Twitter to Facebook for social causes because anyone can choose to follow someone on Twitter, which leads to broader, looser networks of people. “Facebook is inherently different because it’s more built around friends,” he says.

However, some people are using Facebook to communicate their personal messages to their immediate social circle—though it’s not always smooth sailing.

Earlier this year, a breast cancer survivor named Sharon Adams posted pictures of her ropy red mastectomy scars on Facebook. She hoped to shock friends in her suburban England network into checking their own breasts for cancer. “I wanted to take something positive out of a bad situation,” says the 45-year-old, who posed for the shots just six days after having surgery.

Instead, Facebook management took down the photos in a routine purge of “sexual” images. The result? An avalanche of media attention and a 900-member protest that quickly grew to 3,000, even as the company rapidly apologized and backpedaled. Facebook said they had “made a mistake” and Adams put the images back up.

Adams says that despite the setback, she realized her goal—extra online chitchat about the issue and maybe more checked breasts. In her own circle alone, several friends and a niece made the extra effort. “It turned out to be a good thing in a way,” she says. “This amount of publicity would never have arisen if they had not [removed the photographs].”

The largest breast cancer–related group on Facebook is LookPink, a search engine that aims to provide free mammograms for women. It has 850,000 members and acts as a fund-raising and awareness hub with round-the-clock discussion—especially during October, breast cancer awareness month. It’s one of several Facebook gateways to the corresponding LookPink website.

But there are hundreds of breast cancer groups on Facebook, many no bigger than the page of eight women from the Persian Gulf city of Doha, Qatar.

The Facebook page that hosts Sharon Adams’s protest group has a link to her own efforts to raise cash for breast cancer research in the U.K., for instance, and a petition to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services to get gene tests covered by insurance.

“There is a huge presence of women who have battled or are battling breast cancer who are connecting online,” says Alison Gordon, the vice president of strategy, marketing, and communications for Rethink Breast Cancer, a Canadian nonprofit that encourages breast self-exams.

“Social media offers an incredible forum for women to expand their online communities from around the world and share their stories,” she says.

Part of Brosius’s story—and another reason she started using Twitter to raise funds—is her concern for her husband’s sister and her sister-in-law’s three daughters. “I wanted to do all I could to find a cure before they grow up,” she says.

Breast Cancer –