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Do you turn to Twitter for health tips? Beware, bots are promoting unscientific advice

Bots are designed to promote a specific, slanted narrative - 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Here’s how they influence unhealthy behaviour.

fitness Updated: Dec 22, 2017 11:58 IST
Press Trust of India, Los Angeles
Twitter,Social media,Bots
Many bots push the notion that using electronic cigarettes helps people stop smoking, a conclusion not definitively supported by research.(Shutterstock)

Fake social media accounts or bots can not only sway political discourse, but may also harm your health by promoting advice not supported by scientific research, a study warns. Social bots are automated accounts that use artificial intelligence to influence discussions and promote specific ideas or products. Researchers from the University of Southern California (USC) in the US focused on how these bots promoted the notion that using electronic cigarettes helps people stop smoking, a conclusion not definitively supported by research.

They likened social bots to the “vaccinations cause autism” movement, an idea that has been debunked many times but still sticks. “We now have measles outbreaks in Southern California because people shared personal stories about how vaccinations reportedly caused their child to have autism,” said Jon- Patrick Allem, a research scientist at USC. “Bots are designed to promote a specific, slanted narrative - 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” said McCarthy.

The study, published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research Public Health and Surveillance, analysed about 2.2 million e-cigarette-related posts on Twitter from December 24 to April 21. The study is one of the first to document bots influencing unhealthy behaviour, Allem said. Researchers found that social bots were two times more likely than humans to promote both new products and the idea that e-cigarettes empower people to quit smoking.

“Social bots can pass on health advice that hasn’t been scientifically proven,” Allem said. “The jury is still out on if e-cigarettes are useful smoking cessation tools, but studies have shown that the chemicals in vape juice are harmful,” he said. To compile their data, researchers crawled Twitter to pull out tweets that used key terms such as e-cigarette, vaping and ejuice. They identified human users from social bots by analysing retweets or mentions, ratio of followers to followees, content and level of emotion. Then they used a “BotOrNot” algorithm as the final filter.

The researchers found social bots were more likely to post hashtags where people said they quit smoking as a result of e-cigarette use (#quitsmoking, #health). The bots also promoted new products. Humans, on the other hand, were more likely to use hashtags referencing behaviour (#vape), identity (#vapelife) and vaping community (#vapenation). “Use of these hashtags may serve further internalisation of, and social bonding around, vaping-related identities,” researchers said. “These hashtags also suggest discussions of vaping may occur in an echo chamber on Twitter in which ideas and beliefs are amplified by those in the network, normalising vaping,” they said.

To counteract the arguably unhealthy behaviour social bots promote, public health officials and organisations need to bolster education campaigns, researchers said. For e-cigarettes, that means campaigns highlighting the known hazards of e-cigarette use.

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First Published: Dec 22, 2017 11:56 IST