Congress is investigating whether bots misled people about vaping health risks

The attorney general of Massachusetts along with a congressional committee is looking into whether bots are responsible for a number of social media posts about e-cigarettes that may have misled customers about the health and safety risks of using those vaping devices, The Wall Street Journal reports.

According to the Journal, the investigation asked for information from the five largest manufacturers of vaping products in August, including Juul Labs, Reynolds American Inc, Njoy LLC, Japan Tobacco International USA Inc., and Fontem Ventures. All of the companies claim to have not used bots in their marketing with the exception of Fontem Ventures, which didn’t respond to the paper’s request for comment.

Social media bots can be used to generate content or to repost messages from others. They’re used heavily on the internet to help boost a user’s follower numbers or amplify their message. Policymakers are considering requiring bots to disclose that they are automated.

Last week news broke that some patients that have been hospitalized for a vaping-related illness have since been hospitalized for a second time. Those hospital re-admissions can happen anywhere between five days and 55 days from discharge, and currently, the reason for the relapse of the disease is unknown.

As of October 8, 1,299 cases of patients with lung injury associated with an e-cigarette or vaping product use have been reported in 49 states as well as the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and seven deaths have occurred from the mysterious disease. Alaska is currently the only state where no illness has been reported.

Currently, counterfeit vaping cartages are thought to be responsible for the illnesses, although a specific cause has not been named.

This particular congressional committee is less interested in the vaping-related illnesses and is more concerned with the sudden rise in the popularity of vaping products such as Juul and whether or not bots have helped that popularity increase by spreading misinformation about the products rather than facts.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recently made the recommendation that people limit their use of vaping products, especially those that contain THC. It’s also launched a criminal probe into the illnesses. 

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