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article imageHealth misinformation about vaping is driven by bots

By Tim Sandle     Aug 10, 2018 in Health
The use of e-cigarettes is dividing opinion across healthcare and social policy makers. One area that is helping create confusion is social media. A recent review of Twitter found robots and humans underplay the health risks associated with e-cigarettes
In some quarters, vaping draws strong support, but the biggest support appears to come from bots. According to researchers from San Diego State University, where a study of Twitter posts was undertake, it was found that both robots and real human underplay the health risks associated with e-cigarettes.
The lead finding from the research was that over 70 percent of a random sample of tweets analyzed, in relation to vaping, seem to have been produced by bots. These tweets appear to have been designed by parties who wish to influence public opinion, through posing as real people. However, the new research puts this form of 'fake news' under increased scrutiny.
E-cigarettes have been a controversial product since they were launched, dividing medical opinion. Do they help transition people from tobacco products towards the quitting of smoking altogether, or do people remain hooked? And do they encourage people, especially teens, who have never smoked before to take up the habit?
These questions are framed against concerns from the World Health Organization (WHO) about the health risks associated with vaping, in particular the harm that the chemicals in the atomized vapor might cause to a person. In addition, several dentists have noticed a rise in tooth decay as a result of vaping, especially from e-cigarettes that use a sugar-based vapor.
With the research and the influence of bots, Ming-Hsiang Tsou, who led the research, explains: "Robots are the biggest challenges and problems in social media analytics. 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 are based on 194,000 geocoded (transforming a description of a location to a location on the Earth's surface) tweets from across the U.S. posted between October 2015 and February 2016. A high proportion (66 percent) of pro-vaping posts were connected with robot accounts. The research highlights important concerns about misinformation regarding public health issues and potential covert marketing of nicotine-based products.
The new research has been published in the Journal of Health Communication. The research paper is "'Okay, We Get It. You Vape': An Analysis of Geocoded Content, Context, and Sentiment regarding E-Cigarettes on Twitter."
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