Published: 2021-03-29

The importance of credible health information has been underlined by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Against this backdrop, the Centre for Media and Communication Research convened an international symposium on ‘Frontiers of Health Communication in Asia: Opportunities and Challenges’ on March 4–5, 2021.

A key theme running through the two-day virtual event was ‘misinformation’, along with the concept of ‘infodemics’. Kevin Wright (George Mason University) discussed how social media support groups are sources of sustenance for many people but can also end up circulating twisted facts. Jeff Niederdeppe (Cornell University) added that favourable public health outcomes now depend on countering the spread and influence of digital misinformation.

Emily Vraga (University of Minnesota) shared best practices for correcting misinformation. Noting that people’s sources of information are often bounded by their beliefs, she argued that is not enough to point out that a certain piece of information is incorrect. Factual claims need to be accompanied with explanations to help the individual reconcile the new information with their perceived reality. “Don’t just tell me it is false, tell me why it is false or why what is true, is true?”, she said. Shirley Ho (Nanyang Technological University, Singapore) noted how distorted facts were severely impending vaccination campaigns in various locations across the globe. She urged the scientific community to take more responsibility for communicating effective evidence-based information to refute false claims.

Several of the 16 speakers discussed how cultural context affects health communication. Douglas Storey (Johns Hopkins University) showed how various psychosocial predictors of health decision-making can be used to identify cross-cultural differences in COVID-19 preventive behaviours. Iccha Basnyat (James Madison University) noted that gender and other aspects of identity intersect in shaping health discourses. Presenting two case studies — one on female sex workers and motherhood in Nepal and the other about unwed single motherhood in China — she said, “We can only make the invisible, visible if we have stories… if we are able to bring it to this kind of a communicative platform…”

Although a virtual event, the two-day symposium sparked many stimulating discussions, said Leanne Chang, Director of CMCR. “The symposium offered a space to learn about important research directions and findings in the field of health communication,” she said. “We hope it opens up opportunities for continuous dialogue and potential collaboration among various parties interested in health-related issues.”