By Peter F. Chen, PhD, MPH, MA
A lot has happened since Wilbur Schramm was credited to have established communication as a field of study in the United States in the last century. For a starter, with the prolific use of social media and mass media dissemination of real and fake news these days, it is increasingly becoming more difficult to distinguish what is real and what is fake including medical information and remedies.
Not only this, today’s social media is affecting cultural changes that impact on social development.
In this paper, I shall discuss some of the issues and give my personal perspectives regarding the use of communication, media and culture in the context of social development.
I have been working in the social development sector for about four decades. My introduction to, and pathway into, the social development field began when I joined a United Nations agency in 1983 to introduce the organization to the use of video technology to promote and communicate about mother and child health.
India is no stranger to the use of communication for development. As far back as 1956, UNESCO selected India for a unique experiment known as the ‘Radio Rural Forums Project’. Pune was the site of this experiment. Village radio forums were created wherein farmers and other stakeholders tuned in and listened to 30 minutes of specially produced agricultural radio programs broadcast by All India Radio. The theme of the experiment was, “listen, discuss and act”.
The evaluation report of the project showed that, “the Pune radio forums helped to unify the villagers around common decisions and common acts, widening the influence of gram panchayat and broadening the scope of its action.”
When USA loaned India its ATS-6 satellite in 1975 for the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (or SITE) managed by Doordarshan and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), UNICEF hired late Vijaya Mulay to produce a number of film modules for children that were converted into video and telecast as part of the SITE program .
The experiment ran for one year from 1 August 1975 to 31 July 1976, covering more than 2400 villages in 20 districts of six Indian states and territories (Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Rajasthan) .
Doordarshan produced and telecast a total of 1,320 hours TV programs in three languages. These consisted of educational and instructional programs including programs for children, on agricultural innovations, family planning, teacher training and entertainment based on folk arts.
The primary social objectives from an Indian perspective were to educate the populace about issues related to family planning, agricultural practices and national integration. The secondary objectives were to impart general school and adult education, train teachers, improve occupational skills and to improve general health and hygiene through the medium of satellite broadcasts.
Here, I would like to pay my tribute to late Dr. Padi Venkataraman Krishnamurthy who passed away in October last year in Chennai at the age of 98. Simply known as “PVK” to his friends, PVK was the first Director General of Doordarshan. He was in charge of and responsible for producing the SITE TV programs. Earlier in his career, he was involved extensively with the ‘Radio Rural Forums Project’ at All India Radio.
PVK was not only my friend but my Guru. It was he who introduced me to the field of communication for social development in 1983. You see, after he retired from government service, UNICEF hired him as a Consultant.
Using his insights and experience from the “Radio Rural Forums” he suggested to UNICEF to sponsor a communication project to support the global “Child Survival and Development Revolution” (CSDR) started by the UNICEF Executive Director, James P. Grant in 1982.
The CSDR sought to measure a country’s development by the reduction in annual child mortality rate instead of the standard “GNP” and “GDP” used by economists. In a recent discussion, economics Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee echoed this when he said that “GDP is a poor measure of success. ”
The CSDR had four key components which collectively were referred to as ‘GOBI’ (not the cauliflower vegetable – in Hindi): The acronyms, ‘G’ stood for growth monitoring to keep a regular check on child well-being; ‘O’ for oral rehydration therapy to treat bouts of childhood diarrhea; ‘B’ for breastfeeding as the perfect nutritional start in life; and ‘I’ for immunization against the six vaccine-preventable childhood killer disease of tuberculosis, diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, polio and measles .
From 1982 to 1990, PVK and I travelled extensively all over India initiating a number of media orientation projects (MOP) as communication support to the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) Program. Radio was the principal media. In 1986 or 1987, we also included weekly TV series telecast by a number of State Doordarshan Kendras. These MOPs focused on the thematic subject of mother and child health with specific reference to the first year of the child; from conception to the first birthday.
Over a period of eight years, 23 media orientation projects involving 58 of the then 96 All India Radio stations (84%) spread across 16 States and Union Territories were organized. Today, I understand that AIR has a network of 262 radio stations covering almost the entire population of the country. A total of 28 AIR stations broadcast special child survival and develop¬ment radio programs weekly to more than a million women of captive radio forums.
Other radio stations incorporated the CSD messages in their regular radio programs. An estimated 3,000 or more radio programme hours were produced and broadcast. UNICEF assisted and facilitated the formation of 34,000 women listeners’ forums with a total estimated audience of 1.2 million dedicated listeners and provided the transistor radio sets to each of the radio forums. A number of State Governments provided additional radio sets to their ICDS centres. The number of unorganized radio listeners could not be estimated but they numbered several millions as all the project radio stations had repeat broadcasts of the radio programme series.
What was unique about these projects was that each one was State, regional, language and cultural specific. The radio programs were directed towards rural women, with messages specially targeted to pregnant women and lactating mothers. They were designed and produced after a workshop whose participants included the target audience, radio and TV producers of AIR and Doordarshan, Angandwadi Workers from the ICDS, and specialists such as paediatricians and nutritionists. Each radio program consisted of a 15 minutes edutainment soap opera or drama that subtlety weaved in the health messages followed by a 5 minute recap of the health message by a “doctor” at the end of the program.
The radio listener forums were managed by the ICSD Anganwadi Workers who were given special training in interpersonal communication (IPC) to initiate and conduct the discussion forums. Each animator was also provided a specially designed large picture flipbook to help her in her discussion with the radio listeners. We also took into account the cultural and language aspects of the target audiences and ensured that each project was area and regional specific.
Another important component of each project was the involvement of decision makers of various developmental departments of the State Government concerned; from the highest level down to the field workers. This ensured political and administrative commitment.
Finally, we incorporated another important component; that of formative research on the knowledge, attitudes and practices (KAP) of target audiences on the subject of mother and new-born child health (MNCH) before the radio broadcasts were launched. Thus when we conducted the project evaluations, we could compare the post project KAP data to the pre-project data. All the evaluations showed significant change in the KAP on MNCH of the forum members compared to those who had never joined any other listener forums.
Coming back to the topic of our discussions today, in my opinion, communication and development professionals should purposefully use media in the social, cultural and environmental context. An often told incident by PVK was that when he spoke to a rural woman in the Koraput District of Odisha about breastfeeding, she told him that her problem was not the practice of exclusive breastfeeding which was and is promoted by UNICEF and the WHO but that she found it difficult to wean her child who insisted on breastfeeding for more than a year and half.
The radio programs also discussed the use of locally available food to improve nutritional intakes of women and children rather than espouse text book recommended food items that were not locally grown or available or affordable. I recall that the evaluation of the Madras AIR Media Orientation Project conducted by the Department of Adult and Continuing Education of Madras University highlighted changes in the diet of some rural families as a result of participating in the Angandwadi radio forums. Radio and TV dramas were scripted based on local cultures and social norms. Today, this whole concept is being revived by communication practitioners when they speak about the use of the Socio-Ecological Model (SEM) for the designing of communication strategies and plans.
Social development interventions have traditionally focused on the efficacy of communication actions instead of behavior and cultural change. This has been evidenced by the use of strategies that depended on wide coverage, regardless of the effects or reactions they produce. However, the relationship between culture and communication, in all its forms, is tightly interwoven and interlinked. Culture is a common foundation that supports all human actions, actions that influence community norms, beliefs and change.
Multiple factors influence cultural change. Since it is through communication that individual and collective identities are constructed, there is a close relationship between culture and the indirect influence of mass and social media. People learn not only from what they see and hear in everyday life but also from what comes from other people, other cultures and other media .
The development of the internet and electronic media has had a revolutionary effect and impact on culture, lifestyles and commerce over the last two decades. The World Wide Web enabled publishers of traditional mass media of newspapers and magazines to publish their stories online. Subscribers no longer need to wait for the postal service to deliver their magazines via “snail mail”. Even radio and TV programs are streamed online. For instance, I have not subscribed to a TV service provider for the last 10 years. I can tune in to CNN, BBC and even many of the Indian TV and radio channels online using my laptop computer or smart phone.
E-mails, instant messaging such as WhatsApp and Viber have enabled people to communicate with each other across the world easily. Video calls are a normal way of communicating with friends and loved ones. Discussion forums, blogs and social media such as Facebook, YouTube, Tick-Tok and a whole host of other social media platforms and Apps are used for sharing of information whether they are real or even fake news.
In the education front, there are fewer and fewer people willing to go to libraries to read or borrow books, use dictionaries or read newspapers. They have instant access to e-books and online publications. Many friends and family members hardly speak to each other face-to-face but use instant messaging instead even when they are sitting together at the dining table. One often hears of anecdotes that mothers have to message their children to come for lunch or dinner. In public spaces, we can see people looking down on their phones rather than holding conversations with the people and friends around them.
Studies have shown that computer and other media use are known to influence children’ s neurological development, their cognitive development, attitudes, knowledge and perceptions of self as well as involving the use of substances abuse such as drugs, alcohol and altering their sexual behavior. Children who view a large amount of violent TV programs tend to be more aggressive in their own play. Furthermore, bad social media can have negative effects on the health of many children. There are many cases of youths being driven to suicide due to cyber bullying. Some time ago, suicides caused by young people playing the “Blue Whale” game online caused worldwide alarm and condemnation.
Even as the recent and current fires in Australia brought into focus the issue of global climate change highlighted by teenager Greta Thunberg , a Swedish environmental activist whose campaigning has gained international recognition, those denying climate change have been using suspicious Twitter accounts proactively pushing a false narrative about the role of arson in the Australian bushfire crisis undermining the link between the horrific fire and climate change which may be part of a coordinated disinformation campaign.
False information on social media has led to mob violence in several counties and has also helped spread unfounded fears about the safety of vaccines.
The Atlantic published an article on 28th January this year highlighting how misinformation can even be generated without intention if the author is not careful with what he or she tweets out. It narrated a Harvard-affiliated public-health researcher with multiple degrees who lives in Washington, D.C., read a paper on 20th January about the new coronavirus spreading out of Wuhan, China. The paper estimated that the virus’s contagiousness, which is captured in a variable called R0, was 3.8—meaning that every person who caught the disease would give it to almost 4 other people.
He tweeted “HOLY MOTHER OF GOD—the new coronavirus is a 3.8!!! How bad is that reproductive R0’s value? It is thermonuclear pandemic level bad—never seen an actual virality coefficient outside of Twitter in my entire career. I’m not exaggerating.”
His tweet went viral with thousands of retweets. People reading thought, here was a Harvard epidemiologist naming the world’s darkest fear about the new disease and confirming it. However, the Atlantic reported that there were issues with his analysis. He omitted some context, primarily that other infectious diseases such as measles also have very high R0 numbers. He also made a clear error: he claimed that the new virus was eight times as infectious as SARS, when in fact SARS had an R0 ranging from 2 to 5, very comparable with these estimates for the new coronavirus. He also didn’t know that when he tweeted about the paper, the researchers had already lowered their R0 estimate to 2.5. And for that matter, R0 is not the be-all and end-all of the danger of a virus. Some highly transmissible diseases are not actually that dangerous.
Other scientists chided him as saying his tweets amounted to “fearmongering hyperbole, and borderline public health malpractice.” One even started his own tweet to counteract the misinformation. However, the misinformation thread has roughly tripled the likes and retweets than the corrected information tweet. This is one of the realities of the current information ecosystem: While out-and-out conspiracies and hoaxes will draw some attention, it’s really the stuff that’s close to the boundaries of discourse that grabs the most eyeballs. That is, the information that’s plausible, and that fits into a narrative mounting outside the mainstream, gets the most clicks, likes, and retweets. Bonus points if it’s sensational or something that someone might want to censor. After all, which is more interesting: “HOLY MOTHER OF GOD,” or “the essential data are still being collected and assessed,” as tweeted by the other scientist?
However, despite these negative impacts, modern social media and electronic media have and are contributing to many positive impacts and social development. During the 2018 Kerala floods, thousands of Indians took to social media platforms to co-ordinate search, rescue and food distribution efforts and also to reach out to people who needed help.
In 2007, UNICEF developed a platform that allowed anyone to publish real-time information and data analytics in SMS format without the need of a programmer. Known as U-Report, the program sends SMS polls and alerts to its participants, collecting real-time responses, and subsequently publishing the gathered data and sharing them with local civic authorities to pressurize them to take actions and foster positive change. Issues polled include health, education, water, sanitation and hygiene, youth unemployment, HIV/AIDS, and disease outbreaks.
Uganda was the first country to launch the U-Report mobile initiative in 2011. The program was expanded to Zambia 2012 and to Nigeria 2014. In Zambia, U-report was successfully used to raise voluntary HIV testing in the country from 24% of the population to 40%. In Nigeria, U-Report primarily conducted surveys on social and medical issues. In October 2015, Ukraine became the first country in Europe to join the U-Report program, growing to 68,273 participants by September 30, 2018 . The program currently has over eight million participants in 63 countries including India’s 334,191 U-Reporters .
Issues raised in India included girls in Purulia in West Bengal uniting and preventing one of their friends from becoming a victim of child marriage. Other issues taken up by U-Reporters in India include the issue of air pollution.
In conclusion, I would like to reiterate that communication and media is a powerful tool for social development. Media can and does often affect and change human behavior and culture. We need to harness and utilize all forms of media for the social good and positive social change and development.
(The picture at the top shows a dish anttena and a TV set installed in a remote Indian village in the mid-1970s)
This paper was presented by Dr.Chen at the International Conference on “Media, Culture and Development: Issues & Perspectives” in the Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Open University Ahmedabad, Gujarat, on 7 – 8 February 2020.
Dr. Chen is an expert in Social and Behavior Change Communication (SBCC). He has nearly four decades of work experience in the field of Communication for Social Development (C4SD). He is also a seasoned Program Manager with specialization on Results-Based Management (RBM) and an experienced Trainer and Team Facilitator. Dr.Chen is currently Executive Director of Asia-Pacific Development & Communication Centre (ADCC), the international training unit of Dhurakij Pundit University in Bangkok, Thailand since 2012. Earlier, he served two United Nations agencies, UNICEF and UNFPA from 1983 – 2011 in various capacities in a number of countries across Asia and Africa.
As the UNFPA Regional Adviser covering countries in East and Southeast Asia, Dr. Chen provided support to national governments in developing their behavior change communication (BCC) strategies for family planning, adolescent health and prevention of HIV and AIDS.
In 2014, Dr. Chen was invited by UNICEF to assist and contribute to the development of the BCC strategy for the Rashtriya Kishor Swasthya Karyakram (National Youth Health Program) of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare of India.
In 2017 and 2018, he was also invited to help build the capacity of several universities and government ministries and departments in Malaysia in the use of Communication for Development (C4D).
In 2016 – 2017, he was Team Leader for a project helping the Government of Afghanistan to develop a harmonized communication package to tackle acute infant malnutrition in the country. Currently in 2019, Dr. Chen’s institution is assisting UNICEF to provide support to the Government of Nigeria to develop and roll out a Child Friendly Community Initiative. ADCC also helped launch the global Interpersonal Communication for Immunization Initiative (IPCI) for UNICEF in 2019 to help developing countries tackle the childhood diseases caused by poor immunization coverage.
Dr. Chen earned his Ph.D. in Social Marketing and Communication from the Intercultural Open University, Netherlands; Master of Public Health (MPH) degree from the University of Massachusetts, USA; MA in Sociology from the University of Mysore, India and Post-Graduate Diploma in Public Relations & Advertising from the Institute of Marketing & Management, India. His undergraduate study was in Engineering.