A leading Bangor University academic says social media influencers and other celebrities could have a vital role in persuading the public to wear masks to combat COVID-19.

That’s according to Professor Nathan Abrams, who heads a ten-strong team from the university who have just been awarded £426,000 to explore the influence of media messaging on people’s mask-wearing choices in the pandemic.

The experts have been drawn from departments as diverse as media, linguistics, law and biocomposites, and will examine mask-wearing, their disposal and impact on the environment, and how behaviour in this regard is influenced by the media to enhance the effectiveness of similar future campaigns

The project, titled ‘Between environmental concerns and compliance: How does media messaging affect motivation and choice between disposable versus reusable facemasks?’, will run for 12 months.

The grant is from the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Professor Abrams, whose background is in media, said: “We want to make a difference by engaging with the policy-makers and getting a foot in the door of government.

“No-one else has done this kind of research before and, assuming that masks should be worn, how can we get more people to wear them?

“Ultimately, we would hope that we can actually make a difference and save lives and ensure Bangor is known as a centre of excellence for this kind of research.”

Professor Abrams and his team have also seen that much of the public debate during the pandemic has been driven from the bottom up by influencers like Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford and his campaign for free school meals.

He said: “They have had more effect on public debate than politicians and have actually forced government to change policy in the face of their campaigns, such as the backlash against Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Home Secretary Priti Patel over taking the knee.”

But the research will also take in the debate about the choice between single-use disposable and washable re-usable masks, including the environmental impact of discarded masks.

It was an inter-departmental discussion about plastics and waste which sparked interest in the subject of face masks and led Dr Abrams, who has been a member of boards making decisions on grant allocation, to suggest working together to draw up the successful bid to UK Research and Innovation’s COVID-19 scheme.

Another team member is Dr Morwenna Spear, a research scientist at the university’s acclaimed Biocomposites Centre, which examines plant-based alternatives to synthetic materials.

She said: “We want to quantify the environmental angle - what’s the cost of using reusable versus disposable masks?

“We will be looking at the number of disposable masks being distributed and often thrown away, and the environmental impact.

“I suspect that at least half of the disposable masks you see lying around have been dropped by accident, but there’s also the fact that it’s seen as unclean so people won’t pick them up – it’s almost the worst kind of litter.”

Professor Thora Tenbrink, a language expert originally from Germany, is looking at media messaging and said: “It’s about making people behave responsibly and sustainably.

“We don’t just have a pandemic happening right now. We also have a climate crisis going on as well.

“In Asia, they’ve been wearing masks for years. We might have to develop the same habit here.

“It’s good that this project is multi-disciplinary and covers science, language, media and other disciplines because, with a topic like this, we need to look at it from different angles.

“This has been a true team effort from day one and we complement each others’ expertise perfectly.

“The discourse around facemask-wearing shapes our behaviour in more ways than we think – through public media and social media as well as on a personal level.

“I’m excited about this opportunity to explore this in some depth, and to discover ways of framing messages about mask-wearing that will support sustainability in the long run if needed.”

Professor Abrams added: “It was awarded to explore the complex factors underpinning consumer choice of masks and the adoption or rejection of facemask-wearing, including responsible disposal of masks.

“This is an exciting opportunity and I’m very much looking forward to leading this team.”

Other academics from the university involved are Professor Louise Hassan of Bangor Business School, Dr. Tara Smith of the Law School, and Professor Simon Willcock of Natural Sciences.

For more on Bangor University, go to www.bangor.ac.uk.