Lost in Translation? Science and Creative Health Posts on Social Media

Many of us follow channels on social media. Some channels only post entertaining memes, but others deal with more serious topics. While I do enjoy the occasional funny meme and video, I am also interested in neglected or stigmatized health topics. By following start-ups concerned with these topics, I want to support their mission of empowering, de-stigmatizing, and having an impact on (controversial) health topics. The kind of pages I follow share knowledge that seems mostly based on scientific data.

However, the other day, I encountered a very unfortunate post – pictures that struck me as repulsing: a female body swimming in blood. The aim of that post: to normalize menstruation. Was their intention to disgust me? That particular page aims to empower women, not to make people evaluate their message negatively. My instant reaction, however, was to reject the picture, the post, perhaps even the page. Should I unfollow them?

Since I am a PhD in health communication, I made use of my free access to literature and checked for the underlying mechanism of processing displeasing images. Maybe I could help this start-up and tell them that their strategy does not work?

Indeed, scientific literature shows that we cognitively turn away from disgusting messages. As in that particular post, we push the image and message away from us because blood is culturally coded as disgusting and fearsome. Whenever we see something disgusting we have the urge to ignore it and subsequently distract ourselves from it (Lupton, 2015; Newhagen, 1998).

Okay, I liked the mission of this start-up, so I felt that I had to tell them. I channelled my inner activist and sent them a message explaining briefly what research showed about their awareness-raising strategy and how this could potentially lead to unintended reactions. I also suggested what could be done differently. Their response was positive, but I’d say also stubborn: “pictures should show the truth/are an artistic interpretation of the situation and/or dramatic exaggerations meant to be a wake-up call.”

The next posts were quite neutral or positive until, just a couple of days ago, another unpleasant post appeared. I felt frustrated. Are developers of health campaigns badly informed or just plainly stubborn? What can we do to bridge the gap between what is uncovered by research and what is put into practice by campaigners? How can we share our knowledge effectively?

Those are all questions we researchers should think about in our work. We have to disseminate our findings, and create reader-friendly material by means of accessible language. We should bridge the gap and share knowledge with each other!


Lupton, D. (2015). The pedagogy of disgust: The ethical, moral and political implications of using disgust in public health campaigns. Critical Public Health, 25(1), 4–14. doi:10.1080/09581596.2014.885115

Newhagen, J. E. (1998). TV news images that induce anger, fear, and disgust: Effects on approach-avoidance and memory. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 42(2), 265–276. doi:10.1080/08838159809364448

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