Public health comics can build empathy and challenge health misinformation – Prof Anna Feigenbaum

Comics have the potential to build empathy and challenge misinformation, Professor Anna Feigenbaum told participants at an Oxford Comics Network event in November.

The Communications and Digital Media scholar was speaking on the topic Humanising Public Health and Challenging Infodemics Online: The Potential of Comics for Evident-based Communication. 

Her talk was drawn from some of the key findings from a study she is leading at Bournemouth University on public health messaging in times of COVID.

Anna noted that as comics can show layers of what a person is thinking and feeling, they can increase empathy in patients and care workers for example. This empathy can in turn create behaviour change. 

Comics can increase empathy and create behaviour change. Illustration by Christine Lynn Chen @pristinethinpen

While social media are mostly researched for their negative impact on mental health, Anna’s work has shown that social media platforms can be “a vital evidence-based resource for health communities online”


The researchers studied over 15,000 COVID comics on Instagram out of which they drew over 3,000 comics with clear public health message for analysis.


Their analysis indicates that during the COVID-19 crisis, comics allowed space for sharing health experiences. The artistry elements of comics are often the driving force for this, as Anna noted at the Oxford Comics talk.


“As most experiences are ‘invisible’, artistic elements take over when words are not as effective – such as scribbles, dark colour schemes, and messy line work to show depression and anxiety.”


“Visualising the embodiment of illness such as mental health is especially important to show ‘togetherness’ and allow readers to understand they are not alone”.

Comic by Corona Diary visualising embodiment of illness. @_coronadiary

Data from the study also highlighted the potential for comics as a platform which prioritizes mental health. The research team found a significant use of visual storytelling by artists to enhance depiction of emotion, inner worlds and character motivations. 



As a common artistry element in comics, visual metaphors in COVID comics were also deployed to represent difficult or abstract medical data in ways that facilitated health literacy.  

Visual metaphor used by Elfy Chiang to communicate one of the ways COVID spreads quickly. @Elfylandstudios


Another prominent finding from the collected data has been the use of comics to promote and address inclusivity and health inequality.


As Anna noted at the talk, “comics make space for the representation of vulnerable people, such as the elderly or infirm, to draw attention to those with higher-risk experiences with illness.  


Inclusivity can help address issues of health equity. Instagram comic by Mona Chalabi @monachalabi

One of the strongest outcomes of the study has been the underscoring of comics as a medium that can counter misinformation online.

The study suggests that practices such as citing credible sources of information in comics and optimising comic sizes can challenge misinformation and improve engagement with public health comics online.


Digital optimisation of a comic’s size and shape involves thinking about how art will translate into Instagram’s square, single image format. 


Digital optimisation can drive engagement​. Comic by @susannhoffmann_illustrator


In terms of referencing practice, Anna said that visual referencing for comics can make them more reliable data sources. She noted that although Instagram’s format makes referencing complicated, embedding citations visually into a panel can be a helpful strategy for enhancing comics’ reliability. 


Visual referencing strategies can make comics more reliable as information sources. Instagram comic by @_coronadiary

This is particularly important as public health comics can help to create literacy around scientific uncertainty. 

The study by Anna and her team is an AHRC funded project and is titled Comics in the time of COVID-19: Tracking data on web-based comics and evaluating their potential for communicating public health.

You can learn more about the COVID-19 Comics project and its team at

Kufre Okon Author
Research Assistant

I am a trainee communications researcher with a background in journalism. My research interest is in health communications targeting disadvantaged groups. I studied international media framing of COVID-19 for my MA. My current research interest is in identifying online media contents which can be powerful triggers of public health behaviour change.