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SocialBots Likely Responsible for Majority of E-cig Marketing Messages

October 14, 2019

NEWARK, N.J., Oct. 14, 2019 /PRNewswire/ -- Automated accounts, or bots, likely generate more than half of all Twitter traffic about vaping and tobacco products, often targeting minors and promoting misinformation about e-cigarettes, according to a new report from The Public Good Projects (PGP), a public health nonprofit.

The report, which was funded by The Nicholson Foundation, found that bots consistently insert pro-vaping message in anti-smoking Twitter conversations or promote misinformation regarding e-cigarettes. Additionally, some bot-generated messages expressly accuse scientists of hiding the truth, and seek to refute and discredit information spread by public health organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration, among other key players in public health.

In this groundbreaking study—the first national study to document the enormous scope of the national bot conversation regarding e-cigarettes and tobacco—PGP researchers examined 1,288,378 twitter messages posted between February 1, 2019 and June 1, 2019. They found that nearly 80 percent (about 1.5 million) were posted by suspected or highly likely bots on Twitter.

“This report should serve as a wake-up call: Bots are helping to fuel the e-cig epidemic,” said Joe Smyser, PhD, CEO of PGP. “Results from this study confirm not only the ease of finding e-cigarette advertising, but the volume of this advertising relative to all other messages regarding e-cigarettes. Pro e-cig messages find you, not the other way around.”

Given the nuance around what constitutes a bot, PGP examined conversation from three sources: highly likely bots; suspected bots (accounts that display activity that could indicate a bot account, but whose origin cannot be confirmed with certainty); and humans (accounts that have a very high likelihood of being humans). PGP then looked at the proportion of conversation about specific e-cigarette and tobacco products. Across all three groups (humans, suspected bots and highly likely bots), e-cigarettes were more frequently mentioned compared to other tobacco products. This was followed by messages about cigarettes, with other products showing variation across the three groups.

“The focus on youth is disturbing,” said Arturo Brito, Executive Director of The Nicholson Foundation. “Unless we take action, we are on the way to creating a new generation of nicotine addicts.”

Themes, or how messages were framed, showed similarities between humans and suspected bots. Conversation in both of these groups tended to focus on quitting smoking. Likely bots focused primarily on promoting sales of vaping products. Conversation about the health effects of e-cigarettes and tobacco was nearly the same across all three groups, with likely bots showing a slightly higher proportion of messages targeting youth.

Bots commonly reference the importance of quitting smoking, but a deeper examination shows that a majority of these messages encourage transitioning from cigarettes to e-cigarettes or vaping. It is common to see bots embed anti-tobacco sentiment within pro-vaping messaging. At face value, bot messaging can appear to be anti-tobacco, anti-smoking, and pro-health. However, what appears to be messaging highlighting the transgressions of the tobacco industry may actually be pro-vaping content generated by bots. The question however remains, who is behind these suspected bots? Bot themselves aren’t good or bad, but understanding their role in a dynamic and fast-changing media landscape is critical for public health.

The full report is available at https://thenicholsonfoundation.org/sites/default/files/PGP-TNFBot_Detection_Report.pdf

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SOURCE The Nicholson Foundation; The Public Good Projects