There are numerous robust debates about vaping, from its merits as a cigarette cessation aid to the wisdom of vaping through one’s own ears (editors note: it’s unwise.) Hopefully, you haven’t spent too much time engaging in these debates online, because if you have you’ve probably been fighting with a bot.
In fact, more than 70 percent of the tweets analyzed in a recent study by researchers at San Diego State University were all produced by bots. Their awesomely titled paper — ‘Okay, We Get It. You Vape’: An Analysis of Geocoded Content, Context, and Sentiment regarding E-Cigarettes on Twitter — was also funded in part by the National Science Foundation.
It’s a striking finding about the increasingly well-documented problem of social media amplification distorting public narratives. Twitter in particular has been trying to crack down on the problem of bots, recently going so far as to ban anyone who made their handle “Elon Musk” after a spree of cryptocurrency scams. But as the researchers behind the vaping study explained, some bots are a lot harder to recognize than others.
“These accounts are made to look like regular people,” said lead author Lourdes Martinez in a statement about the findings. “This raises the question: To what extent is the public health discourse online being driven by robot accounts?”
Perhaps most disturbingly, the study revealed some important unknowns, for example, where all these bots are coming from and who’s paying for them. To arrive at the findings, the team took a random sample from about 194,000 geocoded tweets in the US and then analyzed about a thousand of them for sentiment and to determine if they were from actual people. Two thirds of the tweets were generally supportive of vaping, while about 59 percent were from “people” claiming to vape personally. They were able to identify a lot of adolescents, but no definitive sources for the tweets.
“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.”
The rise of vaping is only one unfortunate 21st century phenomenon we can attribute to bots. A recent study found that dubious social media posts also helped play a role in helping drive last year’s bitcoin bubble as well. Now, in addition to worrying about whether bots are subverting democracy and financial markets, it seems fair to question whether they’re also interfering with the country’s public health.