Researchers found posts from bots suggesting that cannabis could help a wide variety of health issues beyond symptomatic relief
A new study from the University of Southern California has found that social media bots on Twitter regularly tweet false health claims regarding cannabis — indicating just how many erroneous assertions are overwhelming verified scientific findings online.
Published this week in the American Journal of Public Health, the study compared Twitter posts containing cannabis-related terms between May 1 and Dec. 31, 2018. The review considered those using “methods to distinguish between posts from social bots and non-bots,” and using text classifiers to identify post topics.
The tweets were then coded into a dozen categories, such as health and medical, legal, first-time consumption, processed products like edibles and beverages, and polysubstance use — consuming cannabis alongside other substances such as painkillers or alcohol.
“What we found was that the proportion of bot posts that talked about health claims was larger than the proportion among non-bot accounts,” doctoral student and study co-author Patricia Escobedo. Escobedo also noted the researchers did not encounter a single reference to scientifically backed medical applications for cannabis, such as childhood epilepsy or seizures, in their findings.
Researchers found posts from bots suggesting that cannabis could help a wide variety of health issues, including cancer, Crohn’s disease, depression, trauma and plantar fasciitis beyond symptomatic relief.
“We’re in a period of time where these misleading messages are pervasive online,” said Jon-Patrick Allem, an assistant professor of preventive medicine at USC’s Keck School of Medicine and the study’s lead author. “We want the public to be aware of the difference between a demonstrated, scientifically backed piece of health information and claims that are simply made up,” Allem said.
Allem and Escobedo report being concerned that the misinformation that is prolifically spread by Twitter bots may have real-world repercussions, and believe that more research is warranted regarding the effects of social bots on public health.
“Findings suggest that processed cannabis products, unsubstantiated health claims about cannabis products, and the co-use of cannabis with legal and illicit substances warrant considerations by public health researchers in the future,” the study concluded.
Written by Emma Spears