Fake social media accounts and bots could be dangerous: Study

An illustration picture shows the log-on icon for the Website Twitter on an Ipad in Bordeaux, Southwestern France, January 30, 2013. Reuters

Fake social media accounts on platforms like Twitter could be dangerous when they give health advice which are not backed by any scientific research.

Social bots or automated accounts use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to influence discussions and promote specific ideas or products.

The researchers focused on how these bots promoted the notion that using electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, helps people stop smoking, a conclusion not definitively supported by research.

"Social bots can pass on health advice that hasn't been scientifically proven," said lead author of the study Jon-Patrick Allem from Keck School of Medicine of University of Southern California.

"The jury is still out on if e-cigarettes are useful smoking cessation tools, but studies have shown that the chemicals in vape juice are harmful," Allem said.

For the study, published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research Public Health and Surveillance, the researchers analysed about 2.2 million e-cigarette-related posts on Twitter.

To compile their data, researchers crawled Twitter to pull out tweets that used key terms such as e-cigarette, vaping and ejuice.

They identified human users from social bots by analysing retweets or mentions, ratio of followers to followees, content and level of emotion.

Then they used a "BotOrNot" algorithm as the final filter.

The researchers found that social bots were two times more likely than humans to promote both new products and the idea that e-cigarettes empower people to quit smoking.

The study is one of the first to document bots influencing unhealthy behaviour, Allem said.