Twitter bots - accounts run by internet robots - are being used to promote vaping and underplay the health threats of e-cigarettes, a study has found.

Scientists from the San Diego State University (SDSU) in the US found that much of the discussion around the health threats posed by e-cigarettes are driven by bots. Most of the automated messages were positive toward vaping.
Vaping can be defined as the inhalation and exhalation of vapour produced by an electronic cigarette or a similar device.

More than 70 per cent of the tweets analysed by researchers appeared to have been put out by robots, whose use to influence public opinion and sell products while posing as real people is coming under increased scrutiny.

The discovery of the apparent bot promotion of vaping was unexpected. The team originally set out to use Twitter data to study the use and perceptions of e-cigarettes in the US and to understand characteristics of users discussing e-cigarettes.

"Robots are the biggest challenges and problems in social media analytics," said Ming-Hsiang Tsou, from SDSU.

"Since most of them are 'commercial-oriented' or 'political-oriented,' they will skew the analysis results and provide wrong conclusions for the analysis," said Tsou.

The findings come amid announcements by Twitter recently that it would be removing suspicious and fake accounts by the millions and also introduce new mechanisms to identify and fight spam and abuse on its platform, among other measures.

"Some robots can be easily removed based on their content and behaviours," Tsou said.

"But some robots look exactly like human beings and can be more difficult to detect. This is a very hot topic now in social media analytics research," he said.

For the study, the team compiled a random sample of nearly 194,000 geocoded tweets from across the US posted between October 2015 and February 2016.

A random sample of 973 tweets were analysed for their sentiment and source (an individual versus an organisation, for example).

From these, 887 tweets were identified as posted by individuals, a category that includes potential bots.

The team found that more than 66 per cent of tweets from individuals carried a supportive tone about the use of e-cigarettes.

About 59 per cent of individuals also shared tweets about how they personally used e-cigarettes.

Also, the team was able to identify adolescent Twitter users, finding that more than 55 per cent of their tweets were positive in tone related to e-cigarettes.

In tweets that gave reference to the harmfulness of e-cigarettes, 54 per cent asserted e-cigarettes are not harmful or are significantly less harmful than traditional cigarettes.

The large presence of robot accounts raises questions of whether other health topics are being driven by these accounts, said Lourdes S Martinez, an SDSU researcher who led the study.

"We do not know the source, or if they are being paid by commercial interests," Martinez said.