Are Bots Tainting Health Info on Social Media?


Social media accounts run by internet robots — “bots” — may be behind much of the discussion on Twitter about the health effects of electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes or e-cigs) and vaping, according to researchers at San Diego State University in California. More than 70 percent of the tweets analyzed by the researchers, many of them positive toward vaping, appeared to be put out by bots.

The ability of internet robots to pose as real people to influence public opinion and sell products has come under intense scrutiny of late and Twitter recently announced it would remove millions of suspicious and fake accounts and introduce new methods to fight spam and abuse. In this case, the original goal of the San Diego State study was to use data on Twitter to examine e-cigarette perception and social media discussions about vaping in the U.S.

The researchers collected a sample of about 194,000 tweets posted throughout the U.S. between October 2015 and February 2016 and analyzed 973 of them chosen at random for their sentiment and source (an individual versus an organization, for example). They found that more than 66 percent of tweets from individuals, which may include bots, carried a supportive tone about the use of e-cigarettes, 59 percent included information about the personal use of e-cigs, and 54 percent indicated e-cigarettes are not harmful or are less harmful than regular cigarettes. The promotion of tobacco products via internet bots may be in violation of marketing rules and regulations and raises questions about whether other health topics are being driven by these fake accounts.

Sourced from: Journal of Health Communication