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Int J Drug Policy ; 99: 103470, 2021 Sep 20.
Article in English | MEDLINE | ID: covidwho-1415361

ABSTRACT

BACKGROUND: An unproven "nicotine hypothesis" that indicates nicotine's therapeutic potential for COVID-19 has been proposed in recent literature. This study is about Twitter posts that misinterpret this hypothesis to make baseless claims about benefits of smoking and vaping in the context of COVID-19. We quantify the presence of such misinformation and characterize the tweeters who post such messages. METHODS: Twitter premium API was used to download tweets (n = 17,533) that match terms indicating (a) nicotine or vaping themes, (b) a prophylactic or therapeutic effect, and (c) COVID-19 (January-July 2020) as a conjunctive query. A constraint on the length of the span of text containing the terms in the tweets allowed us to focus on those that convey the therapeutic intent. We hand-annotated these filtered tweets and built a classifier that identifies tweets that extrapolate the nicotine hypothesis to smoking/vaping with a positive predictive value of 85%. We analyzed the frequently used terms in author bios, top Web links, and hashtags of such tweets. RESULTS: 21% of our filtered COVID-19 tweets indicate a vaping or smoking-based prevention/treatment narrative. Qualitative analyses show a variety of ways therapeutic claims are being made and tweeter bios reveal pre-existing notions of positive stances toward vaping. CONCLUSION: The social media landscape is a double-edged sword in tobacco communication. Although it increases information reach, consumers can also be subject to confirmation bias when exposed to inadvertent or deliberate framing of scientific discourse that may border on misinformation. This calls for circumspection and additional planning in countering such narratives as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage our world. Our results also serve as a cautionary tale in how social media can be leveraged to spread misleading information about tobacco products in the wake of pandemics.

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