Is It Time For Twitter To Abandon The Trending Bar?
CHANDIGARH— Soon after an armed mob marched into Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi on the evening of January 5 and attacked students and professors,dozens of hashtags #LEFTIST_ARE_TERRORISTS, #LeftAttacksJNU, #Leftistgoons, #ShutDownJNU, #AnuragKashyapISIS_Terrorist emerged as the top trends on Twitter.
Yet these trends weren’t necessarily reflective of the wider online conversation, or of the facts on the ground.
An analysis by Pankaj Narang on HuffPost India’s request, found that #Leftist_Are_Terrorists, the top trend in India on Jan 6, was largely driven by three BJP supporters with outsized followings of engaged users: Payal Rohtagi, a reality TV personality with close to 190K followers; Geetika Swami a Singapore-based architect with 46.8k followers; and Rita Rathaur, a Twitter influencer with 107.7K followers.
“This single hashtag used in over 2806 posts by 1787 users has reached out to more than 36 lakh people and got over 47 lakh impressions in just two day,” said Narang, co-founder of socialert.in. “In most cases, the tweets were posted by political influencers.”
Over the years, political actors have become adept at manipulating trends to further divisive agenda and platform hate speech. In October last year, for instance, a trend called for the complete boycott of India’s Muslim community.
“The platform is being gamed as certain narratives can be pushed easily to influence people,” said Nayantara Ranganathan, an independent researcher. Many mainstream media companies now actively cover Twitter trends, amplifying these narratives.
“Given the role of Twitter trends in shaping narratives in Indian media, it is an important tool used by agents of disinformation. A hashtag trending gives an air of legibility and credibility for many people. Especially in the absence of any kind of evidence to back up a fabricated narrative (like in the case of #LeftistAttackJNU) a trending hashtag becomes a valuable artefact that can be manufactured through getting people and bots to use them,” Ranganathan said.
But if Twitter trends are easily gamed and are often used to platform false narratives and hate speech, what purpose do they serve? And should Twitter just do away with them?
“Twitter should seriously consider the role that their feature plays in India, where there is a high degree of state capture of media, declining levels of freedom of press, and coordinated state-backed efforts of disinformation campaigns,” said Ranganathan.
Part of the problem seems to be that trends bar is an intrinsic part of the Twitter experience; Twitter without trends is like Instagram without likes (which Instagram is trialling by the way).
“The trending topic feature is a long established part of Twitter’s product, which measures the acceleration and take-up for conversations around a topic,” Twitter said in an email to HuffPost India. “The number of Tweets that are related to the trends is just one of the factors the algorithm looks at when ranking and determining trends.”
Twitter should seriously consider the role that hashtag feature plays in India, where there is a high degree of state capture of media, declining levels of freedom of press, and coordinated state-backed efforts of disinformation campaignsNayantara Ranganathan, Independent Researcher
Twitter actively modifies their technology tools, the spokesperson said, “as spammers change their tactics.”
Yet, anyone who has spent any amount of time on Twitter knows that the platform clearly isn’t doing enough.
A study published by US think tank Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab ( DFRL) team in Jan 2019, found that Twitter is vulnerable to traffic manipulation by small but coordinated user groups, and those who control automated accounts, or bots.
“These have demonstrated an ability to materially distort Twitter traffic, forcing chosen phrases and hashtags into the “trending” lists, and generating very high volumes of traffic from a very small base of human users,” stated the report.
Twitter’s willingness to grant developers access to its Application Programming Interface (API)means that many commercial and amateur programmers have been able to create apps which allow users to automate tweets, likes,and follows.
“Most of these trends are deliberate attempts to carry misinformation and misrepresentations of the facts and no one ever issues an apology or a clarification,” said Prateek Sinha, Co-Founder of fact-checking platform Alt News. “Twitter does not react as its business revolves around the content. The more time people spend on Twitter, the more profit it will earn from advertisements.”
Sinha said Twitter seems to have a one-size fits all policy on trend moderation despite operating in very diverse countries.
“Like India, every country has its own social and cultural values which should be taken into consideration while running a live conversation in real time,” Sinha said. “You cannot have the same policy for every country,”