Fearmongering pertaining to the influence of 'bot armies' swarming social media platforms has returned to the American discourse - but this time, it's not about politics.
Instead, Congressional investigators are looking into whether e-cigarette companies, the public-health boogeymen of the moment, have been marshaling armies of fake "bot" accounts to carry out an illicit marketing campaign intended to make e-cigarettes seem like a totally benign alternative to smoking and chewing tobacco. Of course, that's not what the science dictates. The official position of government health officials is that they don't yet know the extent of the deleterious health effects from vaping, and that, while vaping is likely a healthier alternative compared to smoking, it probably isn't benign - though it will likely be years until we know for sure.
According to a WSJ report, the House Energy and Commerce Committee along with the Attorney General of Massachusetts, is interested in learning whether the major vape companies - including Juul labs and Reynolds American - sought to use 'bots' to spread false information.
Once again, bots are being used as a 'boogeyman', but this time they're being blamed by the government for helping instigate the vaping 'health crisis'.
However, just like the furor over Russian 'bots' on Twitter, it appears investigators are - by leaking the story to WSJ - blowing the influence of bots pitching vaping products out of proportion.
As one industry lobbyist accurately explained, bot campaigns are a cheap and ineffective way to get a message out (you get what you pay for). Robert Mueller's indictment of a Russian troll farm appears to dramatically inflate the influence of 'bot armies' and these types of social-media based tactics.
Greg Conley, chief executive of the American Vaping Association, acknowledged the existence of pro-vaping bots, but said their impact is being exaggerated.
"No one pays attention to these bots," said Mr. Conley. "They exist in their own corner of the internet, they’re very cheap to unleash, but no one pays attention to them."
At one point, researchers with the Public Good Project studied the influence of 'bots' on the vaping-related conversation online. After studying a large pool of vaping-related messages on Twitter, researchers determined the nearly 3/4ths of them were likely sent by bots. One analyst blamed the bots for fueling the vaping "epidemic".
The Public Good Projects, a public-health nonprofit, this year examined a national sample of about 1.2 million Twitter messages related to e-cigarettes or tobacco. The research - funded by the New Jersey-based Nicholson Foundation, a family foundation - concluded that about 77% came from accounts suspected or highly likely to be bots. Many promoted what the researchers viewed as false or unauthorized claims about nicotine and e-cigarettes - for example, that nicotine isn’t dangerously addictive or that e-cigarettes are a safe way to stop smoking.
"This approach to advertising and promoting vaping has gone this underground route and is really fueling the epidemic," said Raquel Mazon Jeffers, of the Nicholson Foundation.
But keep in mind: Most Americans don't even use Twitter, the social media company with the largest 'bot' problem. Of greater import is the fact that vaping companies have invested millions in mainstream marketing (Juul's suspected marketing to minors was the crux of a federal investigation). With all that going on - plus the continuing anti-vaping hysteria surrounding the 'mysterious vaping illness' (which has killed more than two dozen people and is believed to be linked to illicit products containing THC) - the influence of these 'bots' likely has far less of an impact than the current media climate.