E-cigarettes continue to generate several debates and endless controversies, despite being quite popular amongst the public for a relatively short time. Discussions regarding the dangers of smoking tobacco recently began to die down, with some believing e-cigarettes “must at least be better than cigarettes.” However, public health organization are attempting to keep the focus on their central message – never starting is better than having to quit, regardless of your method of nicotine consumption.
Organizations would previously reply on newspaper ads, billboards and leaflets to express the dangers of smoking to the public. Now, it is more difficult to keep up with the online content of varying quality and scientific accuracy, in which Forbes reports “may not simply be individuals voicing their opinions and thoughts.”
A recent study by researchers at San Diego State University (SDSU) collected 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 analyzing the data, they discovered something to their surprise – old tweets that contained confusing and illogical content regarding e-cigarettes and vaping. These tweets were eventually concluded to be made my bots, in which 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 in the study.
This new study follows after Twitter attempted to respond to the pressure regarding the robustness of the platform by pledging to crack down on controlled and fake accounts. Twitter suspended 70 million accounts and introduced new measures to identify spam and abuse on the platform.Though, it still remains unknown how the company plans to tackle the spread of information, typically considered scientifically dubious or nonsensical, such as vaccinations or concerns about genetically modified foods.
The research published in the Journal of Health Communications viewed roughly 200,000 tweets that mentioned e-cigarette use from across the U.S. between October 2015 and February 2016.Two-thirds of those tweets 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.
In addition to health concerns in general, vaping is also becoming a gateway for the younger generation to use tobacco, with teens who use e-cigarettes seven times more likely to go on to smoke tobacco products than those who don’t vape.The study found that 55% of tweets from Twitter users or bots were identified as adolescent and were positive in tone regarding e-cigarettes.
The researches advise that the public health organizations needs to be more aware of the conversations being held on social media if they desire to have an effective form of communication with the general public. In addition, they raised questions regarding the legality of the controlled accounts.
“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.