Why Twitter Always Has These Terrible Trends
So what is important to the world right now? #ClimateScam trended last Friday and led users to a river of climate change memes from those who insist it’s a hoax. Earlier this week, “Sodom and Gomorrah” was trending in the US, fueled by far-right anti-LGBTQ conspiracy theorists. The term “Satanic Panic” surfaced soon after, along with the name of Ashli Babbitt, a woman who was killed in the January 6, 2021 coup attempt and became the center conspiracy theories about the circumstances of his death.
It’s nothing new to point out that algorithmic trending lists can amplify bad things to large audiences. So why does Twitter still have this feature in 2022?
Twitter’s central trending argument hasn’t changed much since Dorsey’s blog. It’s a feature, Twitter spokeswoman Lindsay McCallum said in an email, that’s designed to show people what’s happening in the world and on Twitter at any time. When it works best, trends become something like online events: the “Choco Taco” trend after the ice cream treat goes away prompts others to tweet their own thoughts about it.
Trends are central to the story Twitter would like to tell about itself, says Shireen Mitchell, technology analyst and founder of Stop Online Violence Against Women, a story about how it captures and serves the public conversation. But manipulated trends (even the most innocuous ones) and amplified extremism on the algorithm-generated trending list undermine this story.
“Twitter keeps trying to make ‘trendy’ feel like they’re somehow genuine, trending news topics that people care about. But in most cases, it’s gamification,” says- she.
Besides Twitter’s claims that Trends serves an important public function, there’s another reason the feature sticks around. It’s a source of revenue for the platform: Twitter started selling promoted spaces on Trends in 2010. Currently, Twitter sells what it calls Recovery Spots Trend and displays ads in search results for trending topics.
On July 28, for example, a sponsored trending topic for a new Christopher Nolan movie was promoted to the top of Twitter’s US trending list and to the “For You” column of custom trends.
“I don’t think they really think about the actual benefit to their users versus the benefit to their bottom line,” Mitchell says. Twitter declined to comment on its advertising program for Trends.