Big Brother finds stuff

Social media. A rather quaint place. Filled with thousands of people from a variety of walks of life. You could be forgiven for thinking that social media is important, ‘cos it isn’t. Not in the least, but by that very same token it is important for Big Brother.

As I’ve written about before, researchers in the field of Tobacco Control absolutely adore social media as it gives them raw, unfettered access to a field of stuff.

For instance, researchers identified that us, the average user of vapour products prefer terms such as “vape” or “ecig” to refer to our hardware instead of “Electronic Nicotine Delivery System” (ENDS). There have been attempts to rename them to something like Personal Enhanced Nicotine Inhalation System (among others) that didn’t really catch on. But when the shorthand is PENIS…well it leaves a lot to be desired.

Imagine my surprise to find that a government grant has been given to a group to look at pretty pictures and categorise them to, wait for it, inform policy.

This study documented images posted on Instagram of electronic cigarettes (e-cigarette) and vaping (activity associated with e-cigarette use). Although e-cigarettes have been studied on Twitter, few studies have focused on Instagram, despite having 500 million users. Instagram’s emphasis on images warranted investigation of e-cigarettes, as past tobacco industry strategies demonstrated that images could be used to mislead in advertisements, or normalise tobacco-related behaviours. Findings should prove informative to tobacco control policies in the future.

Now I don’t frequent Instagram. I  have an account, but there’s no photo’s on there. I follow a few people because I like the photo’s they post, but I don’t take any worth posting. I’m not a gourmet chef so there’s no point taking pictures of my evening meal or any other randomness like that. But I know that there are a lot of vapers that do post photos of their setup, their coil-art, handchecks and all that stuff. Props to them for that, they are celebrating the vape. But now, these researchers are looking at the images on Instagram because “in the past tobacco industry used images to mislead”. I’m deliberately ignoring the reference to “informing tobacco control campaigns” because we know how well that turned out in the past don’t we?

As with the ridiculous Twitter searches that these folks do, the researchers looked for specific hashtags and terms from a “preliminary list” of 111 e-cigarette-related terms which included “common” terms, slang and brands.This preliminary list, after a “test” run in September last year gave them a final list of the “top e-cigarette and vaping hashtags”:

  • #ecig
  • #ejuice
  • #eliquid
  • #vape
  • #vaping
  • #vapelife

Armed with this clearly exhaustive list these budding researchers were faced with a small problem. How to categorise each image they found that had one (or more) of those hashtags. They came up with five themes:

  1. Activity
    1. A person “exhaling aerosol” (so not vaping then?)
  2. Product
    1. a personal photo of an e-cigarette device or e-juice container (again, still not vaping then?)
  3. Advertisement
    1. A “professional photo” edited with embedded text of a company name (these folks realise that people do this too, it’s called watermarking)
  4. Text
    1. An image that contains mostly text (who knew?)
  5. Other
    1. Anything else that doesn’t match the above four. Additional coding needed.
      1. (5.1) person or people (wouldn’t that come under activity? Most pictures of people on Instagram are likely vaping)
      2. (5.2) sexually explicit imagery (don’t think much needs to be said there, though some of those would be “advertisements”)
      3. (5.3) advertisement (erm, didn’t they already cover this one?)
      4. (5.4) marijuana (well, natch)

Having found 300 images to base these categories on, the researchers then ran the actual search and gathered a sample of 2208 posts, which according to the paper equated to one image for every hour of the data collection period (1st October 2015 – 31 December 2015). Each post was then coded (and a small sub-sample coded by a second author for reliability). Coding only referenced the image not the caption, although the caption text was used to see if the post could be categorised in more than one category.

As an aside, the researchers actually collected 1,600,058 posts from Instagram during the collection period with only 2208 being “e-cigarette related”. Out of those 2208 the categories look something like this:

  • Activity = 404 (18%)
  • Product = 616 (28%)
  • Advertisement = 648 (29%)
  • Text = 53 (2%)
  • Other = 487 (22%)

Out of the “Other” category (n=487):

  • Person or People 39% (190)
  • Sexually explicit 22% (107)
  • Advertisement 12% (58)
  • Marijuana 11% (54)

The authors do note that the “Other” category (all 487) were actually unrelated to vaping or e-cigarettes. Leaving their sample size at 1721 (officially). They do try to extrapolate “likes” on each image, and they define a “like” as:

for a single image, the number of likes divided by the number of followers of the poster.

Oh do stop trying to understand social media folks. There is no pre-requisite of being a follower of a particular Instagram (or any other major social media platform – except maybe Farcebook) to be able to “like” a post. A bit daft that. Of course, the researchers claim that there were statistically significant differences thereby showing how inept they are at social media. They also claim statistical differences in comments left on the posts too. Look, just because I happen to “like” an Instagram post, doesn’t mean I’m going to comment on it and vice versa.

Hashtags containing a reference to clouds (eg, #cloudchasing) were seen in 52% of the captions from activity-themed images, with photos portraying a person, or persons, exhaling aerosol (figure 1A). Among product-themed images, the hashtag #handcheck appeared in 17% of captions and was associated with pictures of an e-cigarette device and/or e-juice bottle that someone held in their hand (figure 1B).

This is the image that the authors refer to:

IG_Figure1

Why so worried?

Advertisement-themed images were common on Instagram. The practice of tobacco product advertisement through the use of images has been previously studied in print advertisements, cigarette packages, product placements in movies and TV, and internal industry documents.

Ah yes, because the tobacco industry once did the self-same thing (albeit not on Instagram). That’s the only reason. Still treating the vaping industry and its community as tobacco users. Well, not quite.

The present study’s estimation of the amount of advertisement-themed images might be conservative, as we did not analyse the captions, and only images that were explicitly promoting a commercial product were considered advertisements. Instagram also provides marketers more access to teens than other social media platforms, a vulnerable population that is highly exposed to e-cigarette advertising.

Those pesky kids again. Look, social media is heavily used by this “vulnerable population” and any industry would be wise to utilise any and all avenues open to it to advertise their products. But, just because a company is “advertising” a product on social media does not bloody mean the kids will buy it.

Research has consistently demonstrated the strong effect of peer influence and perceptions of peer norms on combustible cigarette use.However, tobacco education programmes have successfully combatted the effects of peer influence by addressing the associated social norms, a strategy that could be implemented on social media. Images that promote certain e-cigarette-related behaviours (eg, holding contests for doing tricks) could negate gains made by tobacco control campaigns and may require media campaigns to describe the potential risks of e-cigarette use.

Now these researchers are talking policy. The cited references for the tobacco education programmes (snork) are all about behaviour after a policy has been introduced coupled with a heavy dose of “let’s stigmatise the smokers” – try that on any other group. Go on, I double dare you.

Bottom line of that paragraph is that the authors haven’t really found anything to really worry about, but are claiming that because “it’s happened in the past” it’ll happen again and will force tobacco control to start again.

Findings from the topic exploration analysis showed that terms related to vaping, the activity, are more prevalent than terms related to e-cigarettes, the product.

Fancy that! Just like vapers prefer the term “vapouriser” over “ENDS” – here have a no shit Sherlock moment.

If you ever had any doubts that Big Tobacco Control Brother is watching our every move on social media, you’re 100% right. They are watching:

Instagram originated as a smart phone app, with features that rely on mobile devices that can take high-quality photos and have fast internet connections; when combined with vaping activities (eg, cloud chasing) that are best suited for real-time capture and sharing, it makes Instagram an ideal platform for ecigarette users and provides ample data for researchers to explore.

As a final note:

The e-cigarette-related themes identified in this study could inform the design of communication campaigns that aim to counter social norms about e-cigarettes, and the development of future tobacco regulatory policies.

Armed with this “study” the various public health agencies will no doubt try and co-opt the use of various phrases to further add more confusion to the debate.

Nice of them to tell us.

Oh, and the final note on the paper:

What this paper adds

Tobacco and e-cigarette companies have used pictures as successful advertising tools. However, Instagram, an image-focused social media site, has been underused in tobacco control research. We address this gap in the literature by identifying the themes of e-cigarette-related images posted on Instagram, studying the level of reactions (likes) being elicited by each theme, and examining trends.

Nothing of relevance.

(image credit bedya/shutterstock.com)

  • Dick_Puddlecote

    Surely even they must realise that there is too much money swilling around in TC if they’re reduced to sinister makework like this. Good grief.

    • Not really – y’see this is just the latest in a string of “studies” taking on the role of Big Brother. The more of these they do, the more money they can waste.

  • jmshigham

    Access to material, yes but also the ability to twist it and present the opposite case which many would look at, at the top of Google rankings, and believe.

    • If it is out there, somewhere, it can get used and taken out of context a little too easily. Which is the exact case here (and the previous Twitter studies I laughed at)

  • Roberto S

    Could it be that there exist some Tobacco Control “Big Brother” surveying the tobacco/nicotine related blogo-sphere? It is not an outlandish or paranoid thought, as TC can barely disguise its McCarthyism, and as such it may employ sufficient nut-jobs combing social media to report tobacco industry moles (their code name for everybody disagreeing or dissenting). Perhaps there exist some obscure secret list, like the East German Stassi lists, where we all appear with a brief descriptive comment.