Beware of the Social Media: Bots in the Service of Cannabis

Science&Tech News - Twitter Bots

A new study from the University of Southern California, published earlier this week in the American Journal of Public Health, found many claims regarding the health benefits of cannabis on Twitter to be fake and often posted by bots.

These kinds of false assertions can be harmful as they can drown out actual scientific facts, the authors of the study said.

Considering that a recent poll indicated an 8% increase in the number of Americans who view social media as their primary news source, this information is alarming indeed.

The study looked at thousands of cannabis-related tweets posted between May 1 and December 31, 2018. The analysts separated the tweets into those generated by social bots and non-bots by using a Botometer — a research tool that analyzes a Twitter account to determine whether it is a bot or not. The posts were afterward sorted into categories, such as health and medical, legislation, first-time use, as well as cannabis use combined with other substances, including psychedelics, alcohol, and painkillers.

The results showed that the number of bot posts making health claims about cannabis was considerably higher than the percentage of non-bot posts. Researchers also noted that they did not find any references to the already scientifically-proven medical uses of cannabis, such as treating epilepsy and seizures in children.

What they did find were bot posts saying that cannabis can treat a variety of health conditions, such as cancer, Crohn’s disease, and depression.

The study’s authors are concerned that the spread of online fake claims can have consequences in the real world by influencing people’s opinions and attitudes. They added that raising awareness over the existence of bots spreading false claims is the first step in their research that will ultimately enable the public to distinguish between a scientific fact and a post that is “simply made up.”

To get there, researchers will need to determine just how many people have been exposed and believe in such claims, as well as the “perceived risks and benefits of cannabis use, intention to use, and actual use.”

Do you believe all the health claims about cannabis you see in tweets? Or do you only listen to scientific evidence from a reliable source? The problem is that it can sometimes be hard to distinguish between the two.

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