- Congress is investigating whether e-cigarette manufacturers paid for bots to spam social media with pro-vaping posts.
- Researchers found out earlier this year that hundreds of thousands of social-media posts promoting vaping most likely came from bot accounts, The Wall Street Journal reported Monday.
- The bot activity may have been an effort to reach children with pro-vape messaging, some researchers believe.
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Millions of posts have flooded Twitter in recent years promoting the use of e-cigarettes and downplaying the negative side effects of vaping. Researchers have found that most of those posts probably came from bot accounts.
Now, lawmakers are investigating whether major vape manufacturers played a role in the spread of pro-vaping messages by bots. Both a congressional committee and the Massachusetts attorney general have opened investigations into vape manufacturers over the researchers’ findings, The Wall Street Journal reported Monday.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee reportedly sent letters to the vape manufacturers Juul, Reynolds, Fontem, and Japan Tobacco in August requesting information about their social-media activity.
Frank Pallone, Jr., the New Jersey Democrat who chairs the committee, wrote to Juul’s then-CEO Kevin Burns that he was concerned vaping products like Juul were “continuing to be disseminated, marketed, and used while consumers lack adequate information to evaluate the health implications of using these products.”
Representatives for Juul and Japan Tobacco told Business Insider that their companies had never used bots for marketing. Fontem and NJoy did not immediately respond to Business Insider’s requests for comment, but NJoy denied using bots in a prior statement to The Wall Street Journal.
The investigations into possible bot activity were spurred by a report from the Public Good Project earlier this year. It found that of 1.2 million tweets related to vaping, about 77% originated from accounts that were highly likely to be bots.
“Bots are actively promoting vaping as a viable strategy for quitting smoking, and suspected bots commonly referenced the importance of quitting smoking,” the study’s authors wrote.
Vape manufacturers have faced a recent surge of scrutiny from lawmakers and regulators in recent years over allegations that the companies spread dubious information about the health effects of vaping.
But before that, regulation of vapes was sparse – a New York Times investigation published Monday found that many regulators regretted a lengthy period in which vape manufacturers received little federal oversight.