Bots love vaping, according to new research.
In the last several years, e-cigarettes have been gaining popularity, pushing combustible tobacco over and sparking both controversy and fandom.
But public health officials and doctors have tried to caution that the hype is premature and the health effects of e-cigarettes are largely unknown.
Now, scientists at San Diego State University have discovered that some of that buzz has been generated by bots.
In fact, the majority of tweets in praise of vaping were just automated messages written by electronic devices about electronics.
So, the researchers worry, bots may actually be behind the driver’s seat of the vaping discussion, skewing public perception to see vaping as healthier than science has as of yet shown.
Bots like this one are dominating the Twitter conversation about vaping, often making claims that e-cigarettes are not harmful to health, new research reveals
There is no doubt that vaping is more popular than ever.
E-cigarettess have made their way into the hands of more than nine million loyal users in the US, and there’s no sign of the market slowing down.
And it’s not just that smokers are switching over.
Teens are picking up electronic cigarettes left and right.
Juul is cool now, smoking cigarettes is not and social media, of course, has a hand in every trend, and how good, bad or healthy the public sees anything and everything.
Researchers at San Diego State University (SDSU) simply wondered exactly how Americans see and discuss e-cigarettes, as expressed online.
They went looking for patterns what people were saying but what they found were not people at all – although they were designed to sound like us.
‘We are not talking about accounts made to represent organizations, or a business or a cause. These accounts are made to look like regular people,’ said lead study author, Dr Lourdes Martin.
At first, she and her team divided the 194,000 tweets they had scraped from Twitter according to who wrote them (individuals or organizations) and the sentiment they expressed (positive or negative).
From those, they picked a random sample of less than 1,000 tweets, and 887 of those, they discovered, were shared by individuals, who may have been bots or not.
They were overwhelmingly in support of e-cigarettes, with 67 percent tweeting pro-vaping messages.
When it came to the harmfulness of vaping, 54 percent of tweets from individuals claimed that e-cigarettes are ‘not harmful’ or do far less damage than combustible tobacco does.
WHAT PARENTS NEED TO KNOW ABOUT E-CIGARETTES
How they work:
E-cigarettes use a mixture of flavored liquids and nicotine to create a vapor.
This vapor is then inhaled by the user similarly to how one would smoke a regular cigarette.
Are these devices safe?
Since these devices don’t use traditional smoke, people are under the assumption that they are safe for you.
But the liquid in the e-cigarettes can contain harmful toxins and carcinogens including anti-freeze.
The nicotine in the e-cigarettes also had addictive components and can lead to other tobacco use. This can hinder brain development in teens.
Also, the devices can overheat and explode if defective.
The Food and Drug Administration does not certify e-cigarettes as a product to get over smoking regular cigarettes.
And most of those positive messages probably came from bots.
‘This raises the question: To what extent is the public health discourse online being driven by robot accounts,’ Dr Martinez said.
’Since most of [bots] are “commercial-oriented” or “political-oriented,” they will skew the analysis results and provide wrong conclusions for the analysis.’
Twitter offers the perfect platform for causes to unify and gain steam, and for users to legitimize one another.
In this case, the research team worries that bots may be fueling support for vaping and mobilizing interests that clash with public health initiatives cautioning against the use of any tobacco products.
And more people now consult the internet than the doctor about their health concerns.
Americans go to the doctor just three times a year, but spend 52 hours looking up health information online. Nearly all – 98 percent – of people surveyed in the Pew study earlier this year sought health information from the internet.
Mostly, people went looking for information not from doctors blogging or writing in journals online, but from other patients.
In view of the trust people put in one another to shed light on health issues online, disinformation spread by bots masquerading as individuals was a serious concern to Dr Martinez and her research team.
‘Organization among advocates of e-cigarettes [online] may result in a renormalization of tobacco that can undermine prior gains in public health,’ the study authors wrote.
The study, published this week in the Journal of Health Communication was not able to identify the bots’ exact owners, however, so many questions still remain.
‘Are these robot accounts evading regulations? I do not know the answer to that. But that is something consumers deserve to know, and there are some very clear rules about tobacco marketing and the ways in which it is regulated,’ she said.