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A unique study posted in the journal Frontiers in Communication in January 2020 reports that of 200,000 posts on Instagram, the number of hashtags favoring vaping or e-cigarette use outnumbers the number of those against it by an astonishing 10,000 times. Vaping refers to the use of flavored juices, often containing nicotine, in electrically operated heating devices that allow the user to inhale the fumes of the heated juice and exhale it, similar to smoking a conventional cigarette.
“The Real Cost” is a US high school program that seeks to raise the awareness of the ‘real cost’ of vaping among young potential consumers. Even apart from the vaping-associated illnesses and deaths of last year, vaping causes lung inflammation, disrupts the immune response and causes lung damage. The negative impact of vaping in adolescence prompted the FDA’s campaign. However, vaping continues to command a big following and many young people continue to see it as a healthier alternative to smoking cigarettes. '
The study shows how little the “Real Cost” campaign on social media outlets, begun in 2018 by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), has affected public perception of e-cigarette use.
Says researcher Julia Vassey, “U.S. public health officials have been calling vaping among youth an epidemic and have been putting a lot of effort into trying to stop this epidemic by introducing #TheRealCost anti-vaping campaign. But this stark imbalance in the volume of posts has caused the FDA message to be overwhelmed by marketing from the vaping brands.”
It was in order to understand how vaping is seen by youth on social media that the authors began their study. Using deep learning and text analysis tools to examine over 200,000 Instagram posts, the study looked at the impact of the campaign and also at how vaping companies sell their products by grabbing on to the trigger points of young Americans.
They collected more than 240,000 Instagram posts, beginning from before the Real Cost campaign was launched, and continuing well into it. They also examined about 50,000 images posted on Instagram and picked out those which contained vaping devices, using deep learning image classification software. They also interviewed several teenagers who used social media, and five people who influenced others about vaping.
Their deliberate choice to study Instagram was because all the vaping influencers said that Instagram was their Number 1 marketing platform among the social media.
The researchers found that there were almost three times more ‘likes’ for vaping posts after the beginning of the Real Cost campaign, and posts with over 100 ‘likes’ went up six fold. Many people also seemed to consider the FDA campaign as an attempt to use fear to produce a change in behavior rather than one which actually told people who might have wanted to quit vaping how to go about it.
The researchers also looked for common factors among the posts and found that 70% of vaping images related to e-juices and devices, many of these showing the devices called ‘pods’. The problem with these is their higher content of nicotine, and their increased use by people new to vaping. According to the interviews with vaping influencers, many of the young people they promoted vaping to were only 13 to 17 years old.
The study focused on Instagram content only and not the use of other social media platforms. The next step for Vassey and colleagues is to see how actual vaping statistics agree with their findings on post content trends.
The dismal findings show, according to Vassey, that “the FDA anti-vaping campaign is not very popular, and we saw Instagram user comments disputing the FDA claims of damaging health effects from nicotine and calling the campaign propaganda.” In fact, the campaign seems to have encouraged more people to support vaping in the face of clumsy or obvious scare tactics. The researchers say, “We're hoping the findings will inform public health regulators about the most popular channels used by vaping influencers to promote vaping content among underage population in order to help counter e-cigarette marketing and slow vaping proliferation among youth. This study could also contribute to providing direction for future federal and local public health anti-vaping intervention campaigns.”
Front. Commun. | doi: 10.3389/fcomm.2019.00075 #Vape: Measuring E-cigarette Influence on Instagram with Deep Learning and Text Analysis, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fcomm.2019.00075/full