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It's time to end "trending" on Twitter

August 12 · Issue #365 · View online
The Interface
By now you’ve probably read enough about the disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein, his death in a Manhattan jail, and the attendant conspiracy theories that consumed social networks over the weekend. President Trump led the charge, retweeting a conspiracy theory that sought to implicate former President Bill Clinton.
While there is much blame to go around, Charlie Warzel finds that Twitter bears a special responsibility for what one researcher termed “the Disinformation World Cup.” Warzel writes:
At the heart of the online fiasco is Twitter, which has come to largely program the political conversation and much of the press. Twitter is magnetic during huge breaking stories; news junkies flock to it for up-to-the-second information. But early on, there’s often a vast discrepancy between the attention that is directed at the platform and the available information about the developing story. That gap is filled by speculation and, via its worst users, rumormongering and conspiracy theories.
On Saturday, Twitter’s trending algorithms hoovered up the worst of this detritus, curating, ranking and then placing it in the trending module on the right side of its website. Despite being a highly arbitrary and mostly “worthless metric,” trending topics on Twitter are often interpreted as a vague signal of the importance of a given subject.
This hands-off approach to editorial intervention in the news cycle, coupled with algorithms that promote the most popular posts, is by now a familiar villain. It played a key role in, for example, the promotion of anti-vaccine zealots on Facebook, and the growth of Alex Jones’ audience on YouTube. The Epstein case was already a conspiracy theorist’s dream before he apparently hanged himself in his jail cell; in the early hours after his death, when little information was still available, Twitter was a perfect petri dish for proposing and amplifying outrageous conspiracy theories.
As Warzel points out, Twitter amplified those conspiracies via its trending algorithm, which has long since outlived its usefulness. Brian Feldman explained why in 2018:
The first problem with “trending” is that it selects and highlights content with no eye toward accuracy, or quality. Automated trending systems are not equipped to make judgments; they can determine if things are being shared, but they cannot determine whether that content should be shared further. […]
This is the other problem of “trending,” conceptually: It’s eminently gameable, but the platforms that use the term never make the rules clear. “Trending” is given the imprimatur of authority — videos or topics handed down from on high, scientifically determined to have trended — when really it’s a cobbled-together list of content being obsessively shared or tweeted about by people who love Justin Bieber. Or Logan Paul. Or who believe in crisis actors.
Removing algorithmically generated modules of trending content would deny bad actors an easily gamed avenue for delivering hoaxes to platforms’ user bases. A more modest approach might be to build editorial teams that keep watch over trending hashtags and remove obvious hoaxes and conspiracy theories.
But what if that were … illegal?
That’s the question I had after reading coverage of the White House’s vague but unsettling plan to have the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission police censorship on social networks. Brian Fung saw a partial draft:
The draft order, a summary of which was obtained by CNN, calls for the FCC to develop new regulations clarifying how and when the law protects social media websites when they decide to remove or suppress content on their platforms. Although still in its early stages and subject to change, the Trump administration’s draft order also calls for the Federal Trade Commission to take those new policies into account when it investigates or files lawsuits against misbehaving companies. Politico first reported the existence of the draft.
If put into effect, the order would reflect a significant escalation by President Trump in his frequent attacks against social media companies over an alleged but unproven systemic bias against conservatives by technology platforms. And it could lead to a significant reinterpretation of a law that, its authors have insisted, was meant to give tech companies broad freedom to handle content as they see fit.
Fung talks to experts who describe the plan variously as “horrible” and “makes no sense.” No one seems to think that the FCC or FTC want to do this work, or could do this work, either practically or constitutionally. It’s just one more disturbing idea floated by the Trump Administration that leaves us all wondering whether to take it seriously, literally, or not at all.
I believe you can’t have editorial neutrality without having Nazis and other purveyors of hate speech and abuse. I also believe that restricting platforms from moderating content beyond what is required by law would threaten their businesses — Nazis have a way of chasing away users and advertisers.
It would be heartening if Twitter took this moment to retire trending topics and take other concrete steps to slow the spread of conspiracy theories. But with the White House’s aggressive saber rattling would seem to make that less likely.

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Telegram Was Built for Democracy Activists. White Nationalists Love It.
How the El Paso Killer Echoed the Incendiary Words of Conservative Media Stars
TikTok is fuelling India's deadly hate speech epidemic
The techlash has come to Stanford.
Ninja calls out Twitch after his dormant channel highlights porn
YouTube’s Susan Wojcicki: 'Where's the line of free speech – are you removing voices that should be heard?'
YouTube moderators explain how the company lets its biggest stars break the rules
Facebook in Talks to Take More Space at Manhattan's Hudson Yards
Twitter’s Search feature for Direct Messages is underway
ByteDance Brings Google-Like Search to China -- With Censorship
Silent Messages, Slow Mode, Admin Titles and More
Why Aren’t We Talking About LinkedIn?
Facebook let white supremacist dog whistle "invasion" thrive for years
And finally ...
How TikTok Has Turned the School Bathroom Into a Studio
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