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College of Information and Communications

Studying the dangers of health misinformation

With misinformation concerning the COVID-19 vaccine swirling on social media, it’s important to find the best ways to communicate health risks to the public. Associate professor Jungmi Jun is researching just that at the College of Information and Communications.  

“Some people don’t have the privilege to become exposed to health information material,” Jun says. It was after witnessing this happen in real-time that she became devoted to health information advocacy for minority groups.  

Jun didn’t begin her academic career in the health communication field. It was during her time as a doctoral student at George Mason University that the H1N1 flu outbreak exposed her to the health disparities in minority communities. “Health communication was not a popular major back then,” says Jun. But after taking a health communication course she “fell in love with that area of study.” 

Since obtaining her Ph.D., Jun has been a part of numerous health communication studies involving health information disparities. One of her most prominent research projects explored how certain minority groups are less likely to get cancer screenings because of “fatalism,” or the belief that cancer is a death sentence that can’t be prevented, in their culture.  

More recently, as one of the University of South Carolina’s ASPIRE grant recipients, Jun conducted research on the effects new FDA authorization had on consumer perception of tobacco products. Last year, the FDA approved IQOS, a brand of a heated tobacco system, as a modified risk exposure product. This means that certain novel tobacco product brands can now market themselves as less harmful than regular cigarettes to the general public. 

Jun worries that this new authorization could cause misinformation about the safety of IQOS and other novel tobacco products.

“People think that IQOS are FDA approved and are less harmful or safer tobacco products, but there’s no such thing,” says Jun.  

In order to measure how this new authorization might influence the public’s perception of IQOS tobacco products, Jun and her team are utilizing the College of Information and Communications’ Biometrics and User Experience Lab 

“Participants come to the lab, and they watch these two different commercials, one where we are giving cues of FDA approval and the other where we don’t give such cues,” Jun says.  

For instance, one commercial could include information stating that the FDA has approved IQOS as a modified risk exposure product, while the other commercial contains no such information. 

While the participants are watching these commercials, Jun uses the technology in the Biometrics Lab to measure eye movement, facial expressions and skin responses, seeing how their body reacts to the commercials they are being shown. These physiological responses show the involuntary emotional or physical reactions participants have toward the commercials.  

The participants also complete a survey where they evaluate their beliefs and perceptions about the two commercials. Jun’s findings from this data will help determine whether the new FDA authorization indeed influences the public’s perception of the safety of these products.  

Jun has plans to continue looking into health information disparities, this time in relation to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. She and her team have already started using Brandwatch Consumer Research, a software used in the Social Media Insights Lab that uses artificial intelligence to interpret online data. The software has already collected data on Twitter sentiments toward COVID-19 vaccinations in over 190 countries and more than 40 languages.  

“We want to compare how countries talk about COVID-19 vaccinations ... and what other emotions they’re attaching to COVID-19 vaccinations,” she says. She hopes to discover what factors contribute to sentiments toward COVID-19 vaccinations.  

Jun’s research has contributed greatly to the field of health communications, both practically and academically, and her future research plans have the potential to improve public health awareness in the coming years. 

Elena Keller

Elena Keller

Elena Keller is a freshman in the South Carolina Honors College majoring in mass communications. She is from Blythewood, SC and plans to pursue a career in the health communications field.  She interviewed Dr. Jungmi Jun for an assignment in her Honors JOUR 101 course taught by Dr. Andrea Tanner. 

Author Note:

I chose to interview Dr. Jun because of my interest in the health communications field and in several of the studies she has already conducted. I was particularly interested in hearing about her current research in the Biometrics Lab on how certain ads can impact tobacco use. After speaking with Dr. Jun, I’m even more interested in the field of health communications. She also made me realize that I can use my communication skills to help improve people’s quality of life, not just sell products or report news. If possible, I would be interested in joining Dr. Jun in the Social Media Insights Lab for her next project on COVID-19 vaccination communications and will be looking into this next semester.

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