Election season is in full swing and disinformation is ramping up on social media platforms, including Twitter.
Twitter’s ‘trends’ feature has caught the attention of misinformation experts as one mechanism by which misinformation can gain virality, before the fact checkers even notice. Addressing all aspects of how disinformation (intentional manipulation of the truth with the intent to deceive) and misinformation (inaccurate information that is unintentionally spread) are shared and amplified on Twitter will take time, but inaction isn’t an option in the meantime.
Twitter has taken a number of groundbreaking steps to address disinformation on the platform and has committed specifically to focus on how content, including disinformation, is discovered and amplified.
But there’s a long way to go. During the last weekend of August, a completely inaccurate representation of Center for Disease Control (CDC) data about Coronavirus deaths was trending for hours and was seen and shared by millions before Twitter enforced its own policies and removed the tweet that sparked the trend.
In light of concerns like these, Twitter made changes to its ‘trending topics’ feature, but the changes likely wouldn’t have prevented the situation above. And that’s just one of many examples. In fact, some Twitter employees have been making the case over the past two years that Twitter cannot fully address disinformation on the platform until it eliminates trends.
We’ve already seen floods of disinformation all over social media, and it’s likely that it’s a warmup for the disinformation storm we’ll see between now and the November 3rd election. And, there’s an increasing expectation that election results may not come right away, so the days and weeks afterwards could be particularly vulnerable to false claims about election integrity and the results. In this environment, 'trending topics' could have a substantial impact on the country’s understanding of election outcomes.
Tech journalists including Ben Collins and Charles Arthur started the conversation about how Trends contribute to the spread of misinformation on Twitter itself, and former Mozilla fellow Renee DiResta has jumped in to point out that the issue is bigger than the U.S. election saying, “Curation and recommendation structures need a fundamental overhaul.” The organization Sleeping Giants and actor Sacha Baron Cohen echoed this call for Twitter to act and began using the hashtag #UntrendOctober in their posts.
Twitter responded with an announcement that it will be adding context around trends – context that relies on a combination of algorithmic input and its curation team to decide which tweets are reflective of the trend. Additional descriptions written by its curation team promise to be clearly sourced, but that is unlikely to limit the spread of misinformation from trending topics.
We also have concerns that Twitter’s new process will not match the speed of viral trends and misinformation operations.
As Kate Starbird, a University of Washington professor of human centered design and engineering, points out, “Twitter's 'trending topics' are a common target of information operations.” As early as 2017, The New York Times noted that if something is “big” on Twitter, it is almost guaranteed that it will get coverage elsewhere.
That’s the problem: When people engage with content, even to correct the record, the algorithm further amplifies the content – including disinformation – and that means more people will see it.
Facebook ended its own 'Trending Topics' feature in 2018 due to challenges in how topics were chosen and moderated. It comes down to this: We urge Twitter to live up to its own commitments for the open web and minimize harm on its platform by eliminating trending topics, even if it means limiting ad revenue generated from potentially harmful and damaging content.