So what’s important to the world now? #ClimateScam trending last Friday drove users to a river of memes about climate change from those who insist it’s a hoax. Earlier this week, “Sodom and Gomorrah” was a trend in the US fueled by far-right anti-LGBTQ conspiracy theorists. The term “satanic panic” peaked shortly after, along with the name of Ashli Babbitt, a woman killed in the coup attempt on January 6, 2021, and has become the focus of conspiracy theories about the circumstances of her death.
It’s not new to point out that algorithmic trend lists can amplify bad things for a large 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, which is designed to let people see what’s happening around the world and on Twitter at any time. When it works best, Trends become something like online events: “Choco Taco” trending after the ice cream treat was discontinued, inciting others to tweet their own thoughts about it.
Trends 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 the public conversation. But manipulated trends (even innocent ones) and amplified extremism on the algorithmically generated trend list undermine that narrative.
“Twitter keeps trying to make it look like ‘trending’ is somehow authentic, trending hot topics that people care about. But in most cases it’s gamification,” she says.
In addition to Twitter’s claims that Trends serves an important public function, there is another reason why the function continues to exist. It’s a source of revenue for the platform: Twitter started selling promoted spaces on Trends in 2010. Currently Twitter is selling what it calls Trend Takeover spots and displays ads in search results for trending topics.
For example, on July 28, a sponsored trending topic for a new Christopher Nolan movie was promoted to the top of Twitter’s US trending list and in the ‘For You’ column of tailored trends.
“I don’t think they really think about the real benefit to their users versus the benefit to their bottom line,” Mitchell says. Twitter declined to comment on its Trends advertising program.