Saturday, June 19

Twitter to Add Context to Trending Topics

Twitter said Tuesday that it would add more context to topics that trend on its service, an effort to clean up a feature that has often been used to amplify hate and disinformation.

The change comes as Twitter and other social media companies struggle to respond to disinformation surrounding the U.S. presidential election. But it stops short of a solution that some Twitter employees and external activists have proposed: eradicating Trending Topics altogether.

Twitter offers trends as a way for users to identify which topics are most popular. The trends serve as an on-ramp for new users who are learning how to find information on Twitter and to help all users navigate news topics. They can be curated according to personal interests or geographic location.

But the system has often been gamed by bots and internet trolls to spread false, hateful or misleading information.

Observers agree and recently started a campaign using the hashtag #UntrendOctober, which asks Twitter to turn off its trending service through the election.

“We need to make trends better, and we will,” said Frank Oppong, a Twitter product manager, and Liz Lee, a product trust partner, in a company blog post announcing the change.

Trending Topics will now include explanatory tweets and descriptions that show why an item is trending, Twitter said. Previously, Trending Topics included a topic title or hashtag, accompanied by a steady stream of tweets about the subject, often leading users down a rabbit hole to uncover why it had become popular.

Twitter relies on algorithms to detect tweets that are abusive or spam and keep the tweets from appearing in trends, they added. In July, Twitter blocked 150,000 accounts that were known for promoting conspiracy theories from appearing in trends.

“There’s a well-known playbook among disinformation peddlers on Twitter on how to game the algorithm,” said Matt Rivitz, a creator of Sleeping Giants, an organization that pushes social media companies and advertisers to cut financial ties with far-right groups.

Sleeping Giants recently called on Twitter to disable trends during the run-up to the election, arguing that trends could serve as a vehicle for disinformation.

“As a barometer for what’s going on, it’s so easily gamed,” Mr. Rivitz said.

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