Study finds social media accounts worsen health

According to the study, which was published last month, fake social media account bots are responsible for promoting e-cigarette usage as healthy despite evidence that proves otherwise. Photo courtesy of Jon-Patrick Allen.

A USC-led study found that automated social media accounts have been found to promote falsehoods that may be detrimental to public health, according to USC News.

The study, published last month in the Journal of Medical Internet Research Public Health and Surveillance, was spearheaded by Jon-Patrick Allem from the Keck School of Medicine of USC, Emilio Ferrara and Sree Uppu from USC Information Science Institute and Nancy Cruz and Jennifer Unger from the Department of Preventive Medicine of the Keck School of Medicine.

The team’s research focused on tweets and posts about e-cigarettes.  It found that in comparison to real, human users, social bots, or unmanned accounts that generate automated messages, advocate specific ideas or promote products using artificial intelligence collected on the web. They were almost two times more likely to discuss the idea of electronic cigarettes as a method of quitting traditional smoking, a claim unsupported by research.

The study analyzed Twitter accounts, through hash tags related to e-cigarettes. To differentiate between human users and fake accounts, the researchers looked at technical components such as metadata, Twitter activity, follow count and level of human emotion within posts.

They analyzed about 2.2 million Twitter posts from December 2016 to April 2017, according to USC News.

“This idea that fake accounts are perpetuating this unproven idea [about e-cigarettes] is potentially problematic to health at the population level because [of] … these individual narratives,” Allem said. “If you look at our research in the past, we talk about this kind of organic advocacy, which is in essence these individual stories that resonate with the public about the kind of call to action on health.”

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, people between the age of 18 and 24 are more likely to use e-cigarettes than adults.

Jourdyn Lao, a sophomore studying health promotion and disease prevention studies, attributes these claims to the common practice of using e-cigarettes and its general perception as being “cool” among youth.

“I think that e-cigarettes also aren’t being regulated very well by the FDA and no one really knows what’s in the chemicals being vaporized,” Lao said.

According to USC News, funding came from the federal government, National Cancer Institute and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Tobacco Products. As a general research aim, Allem said he uses data from online social systems to gain insight into improving population level health with a large emphasis on tobacco usage and behavior.

“I think the overall point is that fake account social bots have been shown to manipulate individuals in the political arena [and] in the political context,” Allem said. “Ours is one of the first studies to show social bots promoting such big health ideas in the health domain. Ultimately, I think the next step would be to find out who is behind the automated accounts.”