So what is important to the world right now? #ClimateScam trended last Friday, leading users to a flood of climate change memes from those who insist it’s a hoax. Earlier this week, “Sodom and Gomorrah” trended in the US, fueled by far-right anti-LGBTQ conspiracy theorists. The term “Satanic Panic” rose soon after, along with the name of Ashli Babbitt, a woman who was killed during the January 6, 2021 coup attempt and has become the focus of conspiracy theories about the circumstances of his death.
It’s hardly new to point out that algorithmic trending lists can amplify bad things to a huge audience. 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 Lindsay McCallum said in an email, that’s designed to show people what’s happening around the world and on Twitter at any time. When it works best, trends become something akin to online events: “Choco Taco” trending after the ice cream is discontinued prompts others to tweet their own thoughts about it.
Trending is 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 public conversation. But manipulated trends (even innocuous ones) and amplified extremism in the algorithmically generated trend list undermine that story.
“Twitter keeps trying to make it seem like ‘trends’ are somehow authentic, trendy topics that people are interested in. But in most cases it’s gamification,” he says.
In addition to Twitter’s claims that Trends has an important public function, there’s another reason the feature remains. It’s a source of revenue for the platform: Twitter started selling promoted space on Trends in 2010. Currently, Twitter sells what it calls. Points of acquisition of trends and show 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 the US Twitter trending list and in the trending “For You” column personalized
“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 ad program for Trends.