COLUMN - On Twitter, dubious health claims from e-cigarette bots

Thu Jun 27, 2013 1:16pm EDT

(Paul Smalera is a Reuters columnist but his opinions are his own.)

By Paul Smalera

NEW YORK, June 27 (Reuters) - Advertising is a funny medium. TV spots, radio jingles, banner ads - none of these are meant to get us to rise out of our seats and run to the store. Instead, most advertising is meant to impress something upon us: an idea, a favorable opinion, a subtle memory of a brand name. As social media has gotten more sophisticated, however, a funny thing appears to have happened online. People with products to sell aren't even bothering to call themselves advertisers.

Instead, on Twitter, they open plain old accounts and start tweeting about the stuff they want to sell us. Social media has brought a revolution to advertising, but in the case of products subject to regulation regarding health, safety or efficacy claims, it's also brought the potential for a return to the bad old days of snake-oil products peddled by quacks in the backs of magazines, where the best result would be to not end up becoming sick or dying thanks to the "cure."

E-cigarettes - the smokeless, tobacco-free, nicotine vapor delivery systems - are being talked about everywhere lately. The devices, and their fans and detractors, are in newspapers, magazines, the mouths of celebrities, even the investment portfolios of Internet moguls.

The New York Times spots one dangling out of Leonardo DiCaprio's mouth. The Wall Street Journal notices Silicon Valley gadfly Sean Parker adding some nicotine vapor to his investment portfolio. And Bloomberg Businessweek spies an e-cig hospitality tent at the Bonnaroo music festival. This is the growth template - celebrity sightings, brand ambassadorship, big-name investments - of many new products these days.

There's even $1 billion in "traditional" advertising being spent this year by tobacco companies like Philip Morris, Lorillard and R.J. Reynolds (selling MarkTen, Blue and Vuse branded e-cigarettes, respectively) who have gotten into the vapor game. The only piece missing from e-cigarette campaigns would appear to be a social media strategy. Or is it?

A recently concluded study run by a research team from Health Media Collaboratory, based at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has in fact analyzed Twitter traffic looking to learn how e-cigarettes are marketed and promoted on social media. What the team found was a steady stream of tweets, many of which appear to be from bots, or automated Twitter accounts, that tout the health and safety benefits of e-cigarettes, primarily pushing the idea that e-cigarettes aid with the cessation of smoking the plain old paper-and-tobacco variety.

The study has the potential to open a new battle line on advertising in social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook - not just their adherence to legal regulations, but the very definition of what social advertising is. The regulation of emerging products like e-cigarettes is already a blurry field, as the fledgling industry fought to avoid being categorized as a tobacco product, a fight it lost in 2011. However, while final FDA rules on e-cigarette regulation are awaited, there is one bright line the makers of e-cigarettes are not supposed to cross. Manufacturers can, according to the study, "make unrestricted advertising appeals, provided they do not market their products as smoking cessation devices."

In an analysis of over 73,000 tweets from a two-month period in 2012, the authors concluded that nearly 11 percent of "commercial" tweets touted cessation as one of the benefits of e-cigarettes, with a potential reach of 7.4 million Twitter users. These tweets were not part of Twitter's advertising program, but they were not organic either. The authors concluded that the Twitter accounts were commercial in nature; that is, they touted websites and resellers of e-cigarette products, along with the cessation claims that e-cigarette sellers are supposed to be barred from making. (I first learned of the research when I moderated a panel that included study co-author Dr. Sherry Emery, at a conference put on by social data company Gnip.)

The FDA must sign off on claims of smoking cessation because, quite simply, they have to establish the efficacy and health trade-offs of the cessation devices themselves. Mini cigars, or even full-size ones, for example, could be pushed as cigarette smoking cessation devices, but there's obviously a less than positive health benefit to trading one for the other.

Studies are underway about whether e-cigarettes are effective cessation devices, according to Scientific American, but it's already anecdotally known that the devices do help people stop smoking. Indeed 13 percent of subjects in a study conducted in Italy stopped smoking regular cigarettes, without even intending to, according to a Reuters article.

The question is, are the chemicals in e-cigarettes any better (or worse) for you then a regular old puff of cigarette smoke? It will likely take years for the FDA to decide that question, not even factoring in the lobbying and litigation efforts various interest groups will employ to attempt to put their thumbs on the scale.

Meanwhile, it appears e-cigarette companies and resellers are not awaiting the final verdict to begin touting health benefits. By taking advantage of the ease with which a relatively anonymous Twitter account can be created, seeded with followers and programmed with automated messages, it appears the kinds of so-called commercial Twitter accounts identified in the study have found a way around the one rule the FDA currently has established with regards to e-cigarette marketing: a ban on cessation claims.

To be clear, e-cigarette tweets that make cessation claims, like this one ("save a loved one by getting them to quit") and this one ("eCig kits to help you quit smoking"), often come from very small online resellers, not the big tobacco brands that are just getting into this new market.

On the websites of leading sellers of e-cigarettes, all sorts of creative copy is employed to suggest, but not claim, that switching from paper to electronic is the smarter, safer choice for smokers everywhere. But as this data-driven study has shown, there no need to employ such hair-splitting when it comes to social media platforms. Indeed, the connections between the bot Twitter accounts and big e-cigarette makers will likely always be tenuous, which means that no matter what the FDA eventually rules in the matter of the health and safety of e-cigarettes, the bots will keep pumping out potentially misleading or illegal claims. While spam blog networks for e-cigarettes (and other dubious products) have also long existed, the "fire hose" of big data from social media providers has allowed researchers to quantify studies in a previously impossible manner.

Emery, the investigator I interviewed on the panel in Boulder, Colorado - which was about academic uses of social media data sets - emailed me, "there's a ton of marketing - a nontrivial amount of which potentially violates [e-cigarettes'] current regulatory status." The study is currently under consideration for publication with an academic journal. The FDA is due to present its regulations on e-cigarettes sometime this year. Those regulations will greatly affect how and where e-cigarette manufacturers can present their products to the public. Until then, and perhaps even after, the public can find, it seems, whatever health claims those with an interest in promoting e-cigarettes have, on Twitter and other anonymous corners of the Internet.

(Paul Smalera)