Huh. I wonder who could possibly stand to benefit from this.

Robot human hand.

Image via Tumisu / Pixabay.

Social media discussions around e-cigarettes and their effects on human health may largely be driven by bots, a new paper reports. The study, led by researchers from the San Diego State University (SDSU), dredged the depths of Twitter to study the use and perceptions of e-cigarettes in the United States. The team planned to gain a better understanding of the people talking about vaping but instead found that most such users aren’t even people.

Smoking gun

The study started with a random sample of almost 194,000 geocoded tweets from across the United States posted between October 2015 and February 2016. Out of these, the team drew 973 random tweets and analyzed them for sentiment and source — i.e. from an individual or an organization, for example. Out of these, 887 tweets were identified as posted by individuals, a category that includes potential bots.

More than 66% of tweets from individuals used a supportive tone when talking about the use of e-cigarettes. About 59 percent of individuals also shared tweets about how they personally used e-cigarettes. The team was also able to identify adolescent Twitter users and over 55% of their tweets related to e-cigarettes used a positive tone. In tweets that gave reference to the harmfulness of e-cigarettes, 54% held that e-cigarettes are not harmful, or that they are significantly less harmful than traditional cigarettes.

The study raises an important question, however. To what extent are these debates our own, and to what extent are they promoted as ‘mainstream’ and ‘widely accepted’ in order to spin public discourse and sell more products? Over 70% of the tweets the team looked at seem to be penned by bots, the researchers report. So there are more chipsets than brains participating in this conversation. To add injury to the insult, these bots pose as real people in an attempt to promote products and sway public opinion on the topic of their health effects.

“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 Martinez, paper co-author. “This raises the question: To what extent is the public health discourse online being driven by robot accounts?”

And the discovery came on by accident. The team set out to use Twitter data to study what actual people discuss about on the topic of e-cigarettes. However, during their research, the team realized they were, in fact, dealing with a lot of bot accounts.

Bots ahoy

Mask smoke.

Hello, fellow humans. I am also human. I like to vape with my lung.

After observing anomalies in the dataset, namely related to confusing and illogical posts about e-cigarettes and vaping, the team reviewed user types and decided to reclassify them. They specifically made an effort to identify accounts that appeared to be operated by robots.

“Robots are the biggest challenges and problems in social media analytics,” said Ming-Hsiang Tsou, founding director of SDSU’s Center for Human Dynamics in the Mobile Age and co-author on the study.

“Since most of them are ‘commercial-oriented’ or ‘political-oriented,’ they will skew the analysis results and provide wrong conclusions for the analysis.”

The findings come just one month after Twitter purged its user base of millions of suspicious and fake accounts. The platform also announced it will launch new mechanisms aimed at identifying and fighting spam and other types of abuse on its virtual lands.

Tsou appreciates the effort and says that “some robots can be easily removed based on their content and behaviors,” while others “look exactly like human beings and can be more difficult to detect.”

“This is a very hot topic now in social media analytics research,” he says.

“The lack of awareness and need to voice a public health position on e-cigarettes represents a vital opportunity to continue winning gains for tobacco control and prevention efforts through health communication interventions targeting e-cigarettes,” the team wrote in the paper.

Martinez thinks public health agencies and organizations must make an effort to become more aware of the conversations happening on social media if they hope to have a chance of keeping the general public informed in the face of all of these bots.

“We do not know the source, or if they are being paid by commercial interests,” Martinez said. “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.”

The paper ““Okay, We Get It. You Vape”: An Analysis of Geocoded Content, Context, and Sentiment regarding E-Cigarettes on Twitter” has been published in the Journal of Health Communication.