A bot, not a Kardashian, probably wrote that e-cig tweet

Kim Kardashian

Kim Kardashian was paid to praise the morning sickness drug Diclegis but deleted her Instagram post after the FDA noted that the post didn’t mention key side effects. For products like e-cigarettes, which aren’t regulated by the FDA, there are few limits to advertising on social media.


This just in: Companies use social media to encourage you to buy their products.

A recent and much-discussed example of such marketing involved pregnant reality television star Kim Kardashian, who was paid to publicly praise the morning sickness drug Diclegis. FDA regulations require that risk-related information, such as side effects, is included in marketing of approved drugs, and there was no mention of drowsiness, the most common side effect of Diclegis, in Kardashian’s Instagram post. Nor did it mention that the drug hasn’t been studied in women with hyperemesis gravidarum, the most extreme form of morning sickness. The FDA sent a warning letter to the vice-president of Duchesnay, the company that makes Diclegis and Kardashian’s Instagram post was deleted.

While there’s worrisome evidence that drug advertising via platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter can undermine patient safety, relying on the FDA to police social media may be a lost cause. For one thing, such restrictions are unlikely to pass constitutional muster: Pharmaceutical advertising has been deemed protected speech in a string of court rulings. And relying on the FDA to regulate advertising also means that approved drugs like Diclegis are restricted, while products that aren’t regulated get a free pass.

A case in point: e-cigarettes. Not only is their role in helping adult smokers quit questionable, the nicotine delivery devices come with safety problems that have many public health officials worried. These concerns include marketing to kids, and mounting evidence that teens who use e-cigarettes are more likely to take up smoking. Yet e-cigarettes have evaded scrutiny by the FDA.

For now that means e-cigarette marketing is unfettered. And a recent analysis of mentions of the devices on Twitter suggests that it is in full force: An astounding 80 percent of some 850,000 e-cigarette-related tweets posted from 2012 to 2014 were promotional in nature. Rather than coming from celebrities, these tweets were largely automated, generated by commercial “bots.”  While some were easy to recognize as marketing tweets — for example, containing words such as buy, save, coupon(s), discount, sale, purchase, offer, free or starter kit(s) — other tweets were dressed up as legit. In fact many of the automated tweets initially fooled the scientists doing the analysis.

“We set out to see what the real users were saying, and it looked like everyone loved e-cigarettes,” Eric Clark, a data scientist at the University of Vermont’s Complex Systems Center, told me.

Clark and colleagues, including data junkies Chris Danforth and Peter Dodds, always make an effort to clean bots from their analyses of social media, so they decided to hand-classify 1,000 of the e-cigarette tweets before setting a computer program to the task. They discovered that many of the automated tweets appeared as testimonials from human beings, a structure that soon became recognizable:

@USER {I,We} {tried,pursued} to {give up, quit} smoking . Discovered BRAND electronic cigarettes and quit in {#} weeks. {Marvelous,Amazing,Terrific}! URL

@USER It’s now really easy to {quit,give up} smoking (cigarettes). – these BRAND electronic cigarettes are lots of {fun,pleasure}! URL

I managed to quit smoking with these e-cigarettes, I highly recommend them: URL @USER

Not surprisingly, a sentiment analysis comparing the automated versus the human-generated tweets found the automated tweets used much more positive language. Approximating the reach of the marketing tweets by looking at the number of followers who might have been exposed to the ads suggests that over the two-year period of the analysis, some 951 million people saw the ads on Twitter.

The researchers emphasize that by no means are they downplaying the health benefits of quitting smoking. But Twitter’s demographics skew young.

“The greatest concern of promotional e-cigarette marketing on Twitter is the risk of enticing younger generations who otherwise may never have commenced consuming nicotine,” the researchers write.

While regulating advertising is becoming trickier for government agencies, private companies like Twitter or Facebook, which owns Instagram, can regulate such posts. YouTube (a Google subsidiary) regulates pharmaceutical marketing and Facebook regulates images that promote self-harm, such as those that urge people to cut themselves. Perhaps social media behemoths shouldn’t wait for the FDA to figure out its stance and decide for themselves whether pharma, or e-cig companies, get a pass.

In the meantime, for smokers out there who are considering e-cigarettes: Don’t rely on celebrity endorsements, on social media, or sadly, on the FDA. Talk to your doctor about what’s right for you.

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