E-Cigarette Surveillance With Social Media Data: Social Bots, Emerging Topics, and Trends.

Research paper by Jon-Patrick JP Allem, Emilio E Ferrara, Sree Priyanka SP Uppu, Tess Boley TB Cruz, Jennifer B JB Unger

Indexed on: 22 Dec '17Published on: 22 Dec '17Published in: JMIR public health and surveillance


As e-cigarette use rapidly increases in popularity, data from online social systems (Twitter, Instagram, Google Web Search) can be used to capture and describe the social and environmental context in which individuals use, perceive, and are marketed this tobacco product. Social media data may serve as a massive focus group where people organically discuss e-cigarettes unprimed by a researcher, without instrument bias, captured in near real time and at low costs.This study documents e-cigarette-related discussions on Twitter, describing themes of conversations and locations where Twitter users often discuss e-cigarettes, to identify priority areas for e-cigarette education campaigns. Additionally, this study demonstrates the importance of distinguishing between social bots and human users when attempting to understand public health-related behaviors and attitudes.E-cigarette-related posts on Twitter (N=6,185,153) were collected from December 24, 2016, to April 21, 2017. Techniques drawn from network science were used to determine discussions of e-cigarettes by describing which hashtags co-occur (concept clusters) in a Twitter network. Posts and metadata were used to describe where geographically e-cigarette-related discussions in the United States occurred. Machine learning models were used to distinguish between Twitter posts reflecting attitudes and behaviors of genuine human users from those of social bots. Odds ratios were computed from 2x2 contingency tables to detect if hashtags varied by source (social bot vs human user) using the Fisher exact test to determine statistical significance.Clusters found in the corpus of hashtags from human users included behaviors (eg, #vaping), vaping identity (eg, #vapelife), and vaping community (eg, #vapenation). Additional clusters included products (eg, #eliquids), dual tobacco use (eg, #hookah), and polysubstance use (eg, #marijuana). Clusters found in the corpus of hashtags from social bots included health (eg, #health), smoking cessation (eg, #quitsmoking), and new products (eg, #ismog). Social bots were significantly more likely to post hashtags that referenced smoking cessation and new products compared to human users. The volume of tweets was highest in the Mid-Atlantic (eg, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and New York), followed by the West Coast and Southwest (eg, California, Arizona and Nevada).Social media data may be used to complement and extend the surveillance of health behaviors including tobacco product use. Public health researchers could harness these data and methods to identify new products or devices. Furthermore, findings from this study demonstrate the importance of distinguishing between Twitter posts from social bots and humans when attempting to understand attitudes and behaviors. Social bots may be used to perpetuate the idea that e-cigarettes are helpful in cessation and to promote new products as they enter the marketplace.