In August 2019, after the disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein was found dead in his jail cell, conspiracy theories about what had happened ran rampant on social networks. The theories did not necessarily originate there, but the networks did their part to amplify them, and the confusion that followed was dubbed “the disinformation World Cup.”
At the center of the maelstrom was Twitter, where various baseless theories about Epstein’s death dominated the discussion. One reason why is that enough people tweet the same hashtag on Twitter, it almost always shows up on the app’s tab of “trending topics,” no matter how deranged. During the Epstein mania, for example, #ClintonBodyCount trended, and President Trump — who is known to trawl Twitter trends for material — retweeted an account that sought to link Epstein’s death to the former president.
To me, the incident offered reasons to bring an end to trending topics altogether. One, the Twitter was seemingly powerless to stop bad actors from gaming the algorithm and inserting fringe ideas into mainstream discussion. And two, the feature had been made largely redundant by Moments, a 5-year-old product that uses human curators to find items of interest on Twitter each day and organize meaningful discussions around them.
In conversations with Twitter around that time, executives told me that they knew their trends had problems, but ensured me that fixes were coming. On Tuesday — more than a year after the disinformation World Cup — the first such fix arrived. The company announced it in a blog post:
Sometimes the right Tweet can help make sense of a trend. Starting today, some trends will have a representative Tweet pinned to them to give you more insight about a trend right away. A combination of algorithms and our curation team determine if a Tweet represents a trend by evaluating if the Tweet is very reflective of the trend and popular. Our algorithms are designed to identify representative Tweets that aren’t potentially abusive, spam, or posted by accounts trying to take advantage of our system. Representative Tweets on trends can be found on Twitter for iOS and Android now. We’re working to bring them to twitter.com soon too.
In the coming weeks, you should see brief descriptions added to some trends as well to help add context to the trend.
So now when something trends, you’ll see a tweet that explains why, plus maybe a short explanation from Twitter. If nothing else, this should resolve what might be the most common complaint about trends for the past decade or so: whenever a celebrity’s name is trending, everyone assumes they are dead, and has to frantically search through tweets to see whether that is in fact the case. And the addition of context to viral information is, in general, a good thing.
In other cases, I might simply acknowledge that Twitter had taken a step in the right direction and pointed to another step or two the company could consider. But I don’t think that would go far enough here: Twitter trends are still fundamentally broken, and I’d still rather see them shut off for good.
Just look at some of the “trends” that have surfaced in the year since Epstein’s death brought outsized attention to the problem. Here’s Kate Conger and Nicole Perlroth today in the New York Times:
In February, Russian trolls fueled an American-made conspiracy theory that former members of Hillary Clinton’s staff were rigging the Iowa caucuses, and helped push the baseless theory to the top of Twitter’s trending list.
In July, white nationalists pushed the anti-Semitic hashtag #JewishPrivilege until it became a trend, and QAnon, a pro-Trump conspiracy group, made Wayfair, the furniture company, trend on Twitter with false claims that the company engaged in child trafficking.
More recently, QAnon adherents took over the hashtag #SaveTheChildren as part of a campaign to falsely link celebrities to child trafficking. As Kevin Roose reported in the Times, the hashtag-jacking has successfully allowed QAnon to reach new followers — and it was as easy as making it into the trending module. It will continue to be easy to make it into the trending module: Twitter still requires no approval from a human curator for a topic to trend.
Reading through the list of conspiracy topics that have surfaced in Twitter trends over the past year, it’s hard to imagine how the changes announced on Tuesday will much improve the product. Will trends be worthy when a human curator picks a “representative tweet” for, uh, #JewishPrivilege? What about #SaveTheChildren? If they add a label, what will it say? It seems possible that this editorial work will only serve to make these “trends” seem more credible, rather than less. And that could help to amplify these ideas even further than Twitter does today.
All of that has led some critics to push Twitter to shut off trends at least through October and the US presidential election. Naturally, this has taken the form of a hashtag campaign: #UntrendOctober. Libby Cohen explained its origins in the Daily Dot:
The calls come on the heels of a MIT Technology Review report which said bot activity on Twitter has increased during the coronavirus pandemic. Bots run various Twitter accounts and take responsibility for much of the misinformation spread on social media sites.
MIT found that around 45% to 60% of coronavirus-related tweets have been pushed by bot accounts, many of which were spreading misinformation about the pandemic.
A Twitter spokeswoman told me that the company knows it has more work to do to improve trends, and that Tuesday’s announcements were meant only as a first step. But the first step was too long in coming, and the stakes feel too high for the product to continue in its current form. The best time for Twitter to have killed off trends was a year ago. The second-best time is today.