Twitter to add context to trending topics

Kate Conger and Nicole Perlroth, The New York Times

Posted at Sep 02 2020 06:35 AM

The headquarters for Twitter, on Market Street in San Francisco, Sept. 19, 2019. Jim Wilson, The New York Time/File.

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

In February, Russian trolls fueled an American-made conspiracy theory that former Hillary Clinton staffers were rigging the Iowa caucus and helped push the baseless theory to the top of Twitter’s trending list.

In July, white nationalists pushed the anti-Semitic hashtag #JewishPrivilege until it became a trend, and QAnon, a pro-Trump conspiracy group, made Wayfair, the furniture company, trend on Twitter with false claims that the company engaged in child trafficking.

The episodes have led some Twitter employees to believe the trends feature is not worth the liabilities that come with it. Over the past two years, current and former Twitter employees have argued that the company would never adequately deal with disinformation until it eradicated its trending list.

But in the wake of killings in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and Portland, Oregon, in recent weeks, their calls have become more urgent.

In meetings with Twitter’s policy teams and upper leadership, including Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, employees have warned that Twitter’s Trending Topics, if not adequately addressed, could ignite further violence in the run-up to and aftermath of the November election, according to two people briefed on the discussions who were not allowed to discuss them publicly.

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.

But the people familiar with Twitter’s effort said it is only a half measure that is unlikely to address the root problem and that Twitter lacks the financial resources to perform moderation and curation at a meaningful level.

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