In years past, cigarette companies were caught using deceptive advertising and youth-targeted campaigns like the cartoonish “Joe Camel” to peddle their deadly products.

In a parallel development with a modern twist, e-cigarette companies now stand accused of using bot-generated social-media campaigns to ensnare young buyers into the world of vaping.

Federal regulators should make sure they don’t get blinded by the technology here. High-tech or not, the same standards that governed deceptive cigarette advertising should apply.

Bots are nonhuman social-media accounts that automatically generate messages, repost content and carry out other tasks to promote certain products or views in ways that make it appear to be coming from individuals rather than computer algorithms.

The devastating effects of bot-driven campaigns were demonstrated in the 2016 election, when Russia used them to spread misinformation in its efforts to throw the election to Donald Trump. As a relatively new technology, bots are currently unregulated.

Now a congressional committee and the Massachusetts attorney general are investigating whether millions of social-media messages generated by automated bots have misled consumers about health issues related to vaping.

The Wall Street Journal reports that part of the investigation is aimed at determining whether bot-generated campaigns have specifically targeted minors — one of the most damning practices of the tobacco industry of yesteryear.

Once viewed as a safe alternative to cigarettes, e-cigarettes are undergoing new scrutiny after the recent deaths of more than two dozen people, apparently from vaping-related lung illnesses.

More than 1,200 others have fallen ill. While the illnesses aren’t yet fully understood — and while vaping is clearly nowhere near as harmful as cigarettes — none of this indicates it’s a good idea to let young people be aggressively pulled into the e-cigarette fold.

The controversy over the marketing of vaping products ties into a larger debate over the bots themselves.

They are deceptive by their nature, amplifying messages (including though not limited to misinformation) in ways that can make it appear there is a groundswell of popularity for a product or viewpoint when there actually isn’t.

California has passed a law requiring that bots be designed to disclose that they are automated rather than human responses. There have been calls for similar action at the federal level, which is an idea worth pursuing.

High-tech aspects aside, to require disclosing when products or campaigns are being pushed by bots as opposed to people wouldn’t be fundamentally different from other consumer-protection laws that require honesty and transparency in dealing with the public.

As for the marketing of e-cigarettes: The more things change, the more they remain the same, as the old saying goes. If e-cigarette companies are in fact spreading misinformation and luring kids, it doesn’t matter whether it’s via bots, traditional advertisements or quill pens and parchment — it needs to stop.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.


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