Nearly 80 percent of all Twitter chatter related to vaping and tobacco products is generated by bots, according to a new report.
The study, from The Public Good Projects (PGP)—a non-profit backed by the Nicholson Foundation and dedicated to improving public health—looked at 1.3 million tweets sent between February and June of this year, reports CBS News. Minors are the target audience of the posts, which typically spread misinformation about e-cigarettes, promoting them as a healthier alternative to traditional tobacco products.
“This report should serve as a wake-up call: Bots are helping to fuel the e-cig epidemic,” said Joe Smyser, CEO of PGP. “Pro e-cig messages find you, not the other way around.”
The study doesn’t identify who is behind the bots disseminating the misleading information. Greg Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, told CBS the tweets generated by bots were “essentially meaningless,” because the accounts have few followers.
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“A bot can spit out thousands of tweets per month, but if the associated account has few followers and even less engagement, the tweets are essentially meaningless,” Conley said.
Jidong Huang, associate professor of Health Management policy at the Georgia State University School, disagreed, noting that the number of followers isn’t the issue.
“The way they increase their exposure is through constantly putting content on Twitter, and hopefully when people search ‘e-cigarettes’ they will see links and clickthrough to their websites,” Huang said, noting that the posts often link to promotions for vaping devices. “It’s a different way or marketing and promoting.”
This week, Florida’s Attorney General Ashley Moody said her office is investigating the marketing practices of nearly two dozen vaping companies that do business in the state.
Other states have launched similar efforts, with some—such as Massachusetts and Montana—have placed temporary bans on vaping products.
“We’re looking at it, we’re going to be thorough in our investigation, and we will hold accountable any companies that are intentionally targeting and misleading our youth regarding vaping products,” said Moody in a press conference, reported the Tampa Bay Times.