So what is important to the world right now? The #ClimateScam made headlines last Friday and sent users into a river of climate change memes from those who insist it’s a hoax. Earlier this week, “Sodom and Gomorrah” became a trend in the US, fueled by far-right anti-LGBTQ conspiracy theorists. The term “Satanic Panic” cropped up soon after, along with the name of Ashley Babbitt, a woman who was killed during the January 6, 2021 coup attempt and became the center of conspiracy theories about the circumstances of her death.
It’s hardly new to point out that algorithmic trending lists can amplify bad stuff to massive audiences. So why does Twitter still have this feature in 2022?
Twitter’s central argument for Trends hasn’t changed much since Dorsey’s blog post. It’s a feature, Twitter spokeswoman Lindsey McCallum said in an email, that’s designed to show people what’s happening around the world and on Twitter at any given moment. When it works best, Trends become something like online events: “Choco Taco” trending after the ice cream treat was discontinued prompts others to tweet their own thoughts about it.
Trends are central to the story Twitter wants to tell about itself, says Shireen Mitchell, a 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 innocuous ones) and heightened extremism in the algorithmically generated trend list undermine this story.
“Twitter keeps trying to make it seem like ‘what’s hot’ is somehow authentic, current hot topics that people care about. But in most cases it’s gamification,” she says.
Aside from Twitter’s claims that Trends serves an important social function, there’s another reason the feature is sticking around. It’s a source of revenue for the platform: Twitter started selling ad space on Trends in 2010. Currently, Twitter sells what it calls Spots to grab a trend and displays ads in search results for trending topics.
On July 28, for example, a sponsored trending topic about a new Christopher Nolan movie was promoted to the top of the US Twitter trending list and the “For You” column with custom trends.
“I don’t think they’re really considering the actual benefit to their users versus the benefit to the bottom line,” Mitchell says. Twitter declined to comment on its advertising program for Trends.