Though online enthusiasm for vaping may seem abundant, a new study found that much of that enthusiasm may come from … robots. The study, led by San Diego State University researchers, originally aimed to study American perceptions of vaping by analyzing tweets, but upon further investigation, they found that more than 70 percent of the tweets collected were made by bots, or accounts made to look like real people — likely in order to promote vaping products and positively influence public opinion.
For the study, researchers collected nearly 200,000 vaping-centric tweets (I have a headache just thinking about it) and analyzed a random sample of 973. Of these, 887 were posted by “individuals” (as opposed to groups/organizations), a category which researchers soon found included a substantial number of bots designed to seem human. (The bots were identified when researchers noticed a number of anomalies in the data set pertaining to “confusing and illogical posts about e-cigarettes and vaping.”)
While 66 percent of those individuals’ vaping tweets were positive, and more than 55 percent asserted that vaping isn’t bad for you (or is, at least, way better for you than regular cigarettes), researchers say those results are sullied by the presence of B.O.*: Bot Opinion. (*My term, not theirs.)
Leading researcher Lourdes S. Martinez said in a statement, “We do not know the source [of the bots], or if they are being paid by commercial interests,” Martinez said. “Are these robot accounts evading regulations? 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.” For instance, the FDA bans “tobacco-brand sponsorships of sports and entertainment events or other social or cultural events,” but what about e-cigarette-brand sponsorship of tweets?
The study’s authors say health officials need to be aware of the conversations about vaping (and other health concerns) happening on social media in order to improve tobacco prevention efforts — because vaping does appear to be on the rise, and despite what the bots say, vaping tobacco isn’t without health risk.