Internet Robots Promoting E-Cigarettes and Vaping Online: Study


A vape. Study shows that even bots are supporting and even promoting the use of vapes for people who still want to smoke but don't like cigarettes. / Photo by: librakv via 123RF


Bots appear to be the main online force that promotes the use of vaping, according to a recent study led by researchers from San Diego State University. It has also found out that bots pose as real people to promote the products.

Electronic cigarettes have been a growing trend in several territories and among younger people. Vaping is viewed as an alternative to tobacco smoking, and many smokers tend to make the switch to reduce their nicotine consumption.

While the debate about the health consequences of e-cigarettes is still ongoing, a team of researchers has investigated online messages that express a belief about vaping. They found that more than 70 percent of tweets analyzed seemed to be released by internet robots. The bots posed as real people and might have been used to endorse and sell the products.

“Robots are the biggest challenges and problems in social media analytics,” said Ming-Hsiang Tsou, founding director of the Center for Human Dynamics in the Mobile Age at San Diego State University. “Since most of them are ‘commercial-oriented’ or ‘political-oriented,’ they will skew the analysis results and provide wrong conclusions for the analysis.” 

The team collected almost 194,000 geocoded tweets in the United States that were posted between October 2015 and February 2016. They randomly selected 973 tweets from the collection and analyzed their viewpoint. They also checked out the source of the messages to determine if the sender was an individual or an organization. 

Out of 973 tweets, 887 of them were detected as posted by individuals. As a category, "Posted by Individuals" also include potential internet robots.

The researchers observed that more than 66 percent of the tweets from individuals featured a supportive tone over vaping, while 59 percent stated their personal use of e-cigarettes. Moreover, the analysis identified adolescent Twitter users and found more than 55 percent giving a positive tone to e-cigs.

The researchers reviewed the user types of the dataset and reclassified them, which helped detect the accounts operated by bots. Although the team was not able to determine the source of robot accounts, they revealed concern about its effects in driving health topics.