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Bots behind most vaping marketing on social media, study finds

Inside the vaping industry's booming black market
CBS News investigates the vaping industry's booming black market 04:03

Automated social media accounts known as "bots" are behind a majority of marketing messages about vaping and e-cigarettes — many of which inaccurately promote the devices as healthier alternatives to traditional cigarettes, a new study has found. 

Such accounts are believed to generate nearly 80% of all Twitter traffic around vaping and tobacco products, with much of the information directed at minors, according to the report, from The Public Good Projects (PGP). Posts often include misinformation about e-cigarettes, and also aim to discredit scientists and public health organizations, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration, the public health nonprofit group found.

PGP, backed by the Nicholson Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to improving public health outcomes, analyzed 1.3 million tweets sent between Feb. 1, 2019, and June 1, 2019.

"These are really persistent marketing techniques that are misinformed, or are spreading misinformation, and it seems to be fueling a new generation of nicotine addicts in youth," said Raquel Mazon Jeffers, who heads The Nicholson Foundation's research on population health. 

E-cigarette use has risen sharply among teenagers in the U.S., from 1.5% in 2011 to 20.8% in 2018. Meanwhile, the devices' efficacy as a smoking cessation tool is unproven. Some studies even suggest that e-cigarettes may hook young people on nicotine, who then later turn to traditional cigarettes.  

"Gaps in knowledge, as well as the emerging news about the negative health impacts of e-cigarette use, make the topic one that is particularly susceptible to misinformation," the study states.  

"Wake-up call"

The sheer volume of content disseminated by bots is of particular concern, according to vaping critics.

"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," he said. 

While the study doesn't identify the parties behind the bots, some experts suspect that many of the accounts belong to smaller e-cigarette manufacturers and retailers. 

Greg Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, said that bot-generated tweets "are essentially meaningless" because these kinds of accounts have few real followers. He said the report mistakes volume of tweets with actual engagement. 

"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," he told CBS MoneyWatch. 

Not so, said Dr. Jidong Huang, associate professor of Health Management policy at the Georgia State University School. "It's not about the followers, because not a lot of people follow those bot accounts to begin with," he said. "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 click through to their websites. It's a different way or marketing and promoting."

Vaping illnesses top 1,000 across the U.S. 03:03

Huang, who has conducted his own research into the marketing of vape products on social media, added that most of the tweets he analyzed were to promote commercial sales.  

"It's not surprising to me that most of the bot content would be positive toward e-cigarettes," he told CBS MoneyWatch. "We have looked at their accounts, and a lot of times they link to websites where they promote certain e-cigarette devices."

"Bot tweeting" is common among small and online e-cigarette vendors because it's less expensive than traditional marketing, Huang said. 

Social media is also a great way to reach youth markets. "They're marketing e-cigarettes to kids and misleading the public with no traceability and in a way that materially misrepresents the number of people who like these products," said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. 

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