Bots Are Dominating The Discussion About E-Cigarettes On Twitter
E-cigarettes have generated numerous debates and seemingly endless controversies, despite being widely used by the public for a relatively short time. Comparisons to the irrefutable harm caused by tobacco smoking have quickly become saturated by simple “well they must at least be better than cigarettes” statements, with public health organizations scrambling to try to keep the focus on their central message—never starting is better than having to quit, whatever your method of nicotine consumption.
Organizations which previously may have relied on newspaper ads, billboards and leaflets in doctor’s surgeries to communicate with the public now have to compete with a deluge of online content of varying quality and scientific accuracy, some of which may not simply be individuals voicing their opinions and thoughts.
A new study by researchers at San Diego State University (SDSU) was originally designed to use data from Twitter to study the use of e-cigarettes in the U.S., the type of people using them and their perceptions of e-cigarettes. However, while they were analyzing the data, they came across something surprising. Odd tweets containing confusing and illogical content about e-cigarettes and vaping, tweets which they eventually concluded had been made by bots. They re-classified the tweets, determining that 70% of the tweets in their dataset was produced by bots.
“Robots are the biggest challenges and problems in social media analytics. Some robots can be easily removed based on their content and behaviors, but some robots look exactly like human beings and can be more difficult to detect,” said Ming-Hsiang Tsou, founding director of SDSU’s Center for Human Dynamics in the Mobile Age, and co-author on the study.
This comes as Twitter responded to mounting pressure regarding the robustness of the platform by pledging to crack down on controlled and fake accounts, suspending 70million of them and introducing new measures to identify spam and abuse on the platform. But how or if they plan to tackle the spread of information considered scientifically dubious or nonsensical regarding public health issues such as vaccination or concerns about genetically modified foods, is less clear.
The research published in the Journal of Health Communications looked at nearly 200,000 tweets mentioning e-cigarette use from across the U.S. between October 2015 and February 2016. Two-thirds of tweets from these accounts were supportive of e-cigarette use and 59% were tweets about personal use, despite the study suggesting that a significant proportion of these accounts were not run by real people.
“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 Lourdes D.Martinez, lead author of the study from SDSU’s School of Communication.
There are concerns that vaping is a gateway to using tobacco for the younger generation, with teens who use e-cigarettes seven times more likely to go on to smoke tobacco products than those who don’t vape. Teenagers are also more likely to vape than adults and as the generation who are effortlessly, constantly glued to social media, it is not far-fetched to believe that various social media platforms may influence their health choices.
The study found that 55% of tweets from Twitter users or bots the study identified as adolescent were positive in tone regarding e-cigarettes, a not-insignificant issue when 2million middle- and high-school students reported using e-cigarettes within the last 30 days in a 2016 study.
The researchers suggest that public health organizations need to be more aware of conversations on social media if they want to be effective at communicating with the general public. They also raise questions regarding the legality of the controlled accounts considering regulation of tobacco marketing and advertising.
“We do not know the source, or if they are being paid by commercial interests. Are these robot accounts evading regulations? I do not know the answer to that. But that is something consumers deserve to know. To what extent is the public health discourse online being driven by robot accounts?” said Martinez.