Twitter said Tuesday that it plans to make small changes to its trending topics feature to improve the quality of information users see, a decision that sidesteps growing calls for it to remove the lists altogether for fueling hoaxes and conspiracy theories.
To start, Twitter said in a blog post, it will provide more context for trending topics by selecting a “representative tweet” for some trends. A combination of computer algorithms and a human curation team will choose the tweet, according to the company.
“To be clear, we know there is more work to do to improve trends and the context updates we’re announcing today are just a small step in the right direction,” Twitter said in the post from Liz Lee, a product trust partner, and Frank Oppong, a product manager.
For years, the lists of what’s trending on Twitter have regularly caused headaches. There was the time the media mogul Oprah Winfrey knocked down a rumor that her home had been raided after her name started trending. Pro-Saudi Arabia talking points have trended with the help of bots.
And more recently, hashtags associated with the QAnon conspiracy theory have made the lists, prompting a crackdown by the company.
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The problems have been so persistent that researchers and critics of social media worry that the lists of what’s trending on Twitter are severely distorting the U.S. political debate leading up to the November election. Some would like the lists to disappear to allow people to judge for themselves what’s important.
“Twitter is a super-spreader of lies and hate,” the comedian and filmmaker Sacha Baron Cohen tweeted Sunday.
Baron Cohen, a vocal critic of social media, called for Twitter to “pause” trending topics before the election, a move he said would help to “stop disinformation” and “save democracy.”
Twitter didn’t offer a specific response to Baron Cohen’s proposal. The company acknowledged that the lists are flawed even as it asserted that they can be saved.
“There is more we can do to help people understand why something is trending and to provide transparency around how something trends. We need to make trends better and we will,” Lee and Oppong wrote.
Social media trending lists have been a favorite battleground for years for people who want to sway or distort online discussions about politics or other subjects. Broken down by geography, the lists show what people are discussing most, and they can help drive more attention back to certain subjects and hashtags.
Days before the 2016 presidential election, getting topics to trend on Twitter was part of the campaign WikiLeaks launched after it received thousands of emails that Russian operatives were alleged to have stolen from a Hillary Clinton campaign official.
“Twitter’s ‘trending topics’ are a common target of information operations,” Kate Starbird, a University of Washington professor of human centered design and engineering, said on Twitter.
“Too much manipulation/distortion there for the signal to be worth anything now, and the downsides (of allowing the discourse to get repeatedly hijacked to push false narratives) are clear,” she said.
Facebook eliminated trending topics in 2018, although for a somewhat different reason: Republicans argued that human curators were too influential in selecting topics.
Calls for Twitter to do the same arose again in August 2019 after the disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein was found dead in a New York City jail. Hashtags referring to conspiracy theories involving the Clintons or President Donald Trump trended on the service, and one researcher said the episode amounted to the “Disinformation World Cup.”
Twitter has tried other ways since at least 2013 to improve its trending lists and to deter people from trying to game the system, among them cracking down on fake accounts.