Comics in the time of COVID-19: Tracking data on web-based comics and evaluating their potential for communicating public health messages

Lead Research Organisation: Bournemouth University
Department Name: Faculty of Media and Communication

Abstract

Our pandemic lives are deeply entwined with visual, web-based public health messages, from instructional hand-washing pictograms to infographics about physical activity during lockdowns. Alongside these official public health communications, people are creating thousands of web-based comics conveying public health messages.

It is critical that we collect and code these comics now. As ephemeral, web-based artefacts we risk losing access to thousands of these creations and their specific circulation contexts. Capturing and coding this data now will allow us to rapidly track their messages, reach and engagement. In particular, focusing on web-comics from the first 6 months of the pandemic, we will be able to evaluate the impacts and potentials of producing and circualting time-sensitive public health messages via the comics medium across social media platforms.

Capturing these web-comics' reach and engagement on digital platforms will also yield insight into how public health messages are shared and interpretted on social media, as well as into how behavioral change is championed and resisted. Coding will be done through a qualitative content analysis of comics' narratives and visuals, as well as an analysis of social media comments, allowing us to evaluate for evidence of behavioural change and real-time resilience-building in relation to public health guidelines.

To maximise the impact of this resource on beneficiaries, key stakeholders from the Graphic Medicine Collective, Information Literacy Group, and Public Health Dorset will help shape data collection and analysis.

Research data will be stored on BU's secure cloud service and on external hard drives. The final, deliverable dataset will be in Excel and CSV formats, compatible with web interface, database and digital cataloguing for ease of adaptation for future activities.

Publications

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Title A Comic Guide to Best Practice 
Description A comic style zine covering best practice for public health and science comic creators that is focused on building health, information and digital literacy for both practitioners and audiences. 
Type Of Art Artefact (including digital) 
Year Produced 2021 
Impact We distributed 200 comic guides at the Lakes International Comics Arts Festival. We were invited for a further talk and are in discussion about future collaborations. 
URL https://www.covidcomics.org/best-practice-guidelines/
 
Description Comics can provide a platform to visualise and prioritise mental health, reaching people through emotional storytelling.

Comics can tackle issues of health equity and foster empathy by humanising illness and health experiences.

On social media, colour makes for more engagement and can be used to promote inclusivity and better target specific demographics.

Visual metaphors can help build health literacy - particularly around complex scientific concepts that are difficult to visualise.

Source referencing is key for improving evidence-based comics and creating verified 'influencer networks' of trusted social media health and science communicators.

Hashtags can widen and diversify audiences, allowing messages to better target communities prone to misinformation.

Digital optimisation can help drive engagement with public health messages on social media.

Artists are navigating algorithmic constraints as Instagram flags and supresses all COVID-19 material for misinformation.

Interactive web comics can foster participatory culture in online health messaging, promoting resource sharing and wellness.

Communicating uncertainty in comics can help cultivate information literacy, wellbeing, and resilience.
Exploitation Route Best practice in public health messaging should combine visual storytelling and referencing techniques that acknowledge the existing literacy practices of their audiences.

Communities of practice should be further developed to investigate and enhance creative, evidence-based communications on social media. This includes bringing visual metaphor, resonant icons, gesture, experiential scales, and internal emotional worlds into the visual communication of scientific and statistical reporting, as well as training in data referencing and social media optimisation skills.

Public Health bodies should work with comics artists on the creation and distribution of public health messaging campaigns. These collaborations are often most successful when artists can tap into their existing reader networks and retain ownership over their creative work.

Social Media platform regulation should focus not only on supressing and flagging dis/misinformation, but also on helping to tag and amplify evidence-based posts. For example, a "green tick", similar to the "blue tick" used for verified public figures, could be used to verify the credibility of science communicators.

Platform regulation should be combined with strategies to strengthen people's resilience to health misinformation through digital literacy, taking the transferable principles from how comics combine accessibility, relatability and interactivity to support the conversion of existing digital literacies into information capabilities.

More work at policy level needs to be done to achieve free access to social media data. Corporations like Facebook (now Meta) have failed to preserve visual archives. They do not make data easily searchable or accessible to researchers, limiting our ability to study social phenomena and preserve digital cultural heritage.
Sectors Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Healthcare,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

URL https://www.covidcomics.org/ahrc-project/
 
Description We will update this section after impact capture. Our project ended in November 2021 with the final report completed in Dec 2021 and to be published in March 2022.
First Year Of Impact 2021
 
Description UKRI COVID-19 impacts on research funding
Amount £3,000 (GBP)
Organisation Bournemouth University 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 07/2021 
End 09/2021
 
Title Covid Comics Database 
Description 15,000 entry database of comics sampled using hashtag queries from Instagram between Jan 2020 and March 2021. Coded for public health content, with sub-sample of 3000 comics coded in detail. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2021 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact impacts pending 
URL https://www.covidcomics.org/ahrc-project/project-database/
 
Description Public Health Dorset 
Organisation Public Health Dorset
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Helped inform on role comics can play in public health communications
Collaborator Contribution Helped shape definitions of public health and public health coding frame
Impact pending
Start Year 2020
 
Description Data Comics workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Interactive workshop for general public on data comics using COVID-19 as the case study. Led to greater public awareness of role comics can play in communicating scientific data.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://www.bournemouth.ac.uk/research/get-involved/esrc-festival-social-science-2020
 
Description Interview for national radio 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Spoke on BBC Radio 3 about key project findings around potential for evidence-based comics to spread public health comms messages and combat misinformation
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0011d1v
 
Description Policy conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact We spoke on comics for health and digital literacy to an audience of policymakers and researchers. We were invited to submit a book chapter on our talk to the forthcoming open access collection arising from the event.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://easychair.org/cfp/DIPRC2021
 
Description international public talk 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact I gave a virtual, live streamed talk on a panel of politicians and political researchers about the potential of evidence-based comics for fighting infodemics on social media
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
 
Description keynote talk 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Delivered a live and livestreamed talk on our AHRC project reporting findings around comics and public health communication
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.comicartfestival.com/
 
Description workshop at Being Human Festival 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact We ran an interactive workshop with 10 participants for the Being Human Festival. I was invited to speak on BBC Radio 3 about the project
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://beinghumanfestival.org/events/covidcomics-and-me