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Photography Marten Bjork, via Unsplash

Why Twitter’s ‘trending’ section has to go

Users are calling for the platform’s trends to be scrapped completely to help stop the spread of misinformation in the run-up to the 2020 election

Twitter’s trending page is often a confusing place, whether it’s filled with fleeting memes, calls to #FreeLorde, K-pop stans celebrating their favourite artist, or Telfar fans calling out resellers for buying up a recent drop. Often, it’s difficult to even tell why a particular phrase or topic is trending as you trawl through the hashtag.

And sometimes – like similar algorithms on other social media sites – Twitter’s technology to help content go viral can also have darker implications, acting as a breeding ground for disinformation and conspiracy theories (for example, during this year’s Black Lives Matter protests and the coronavirus pandemic).

At the beginning of this month (September 1), however, Twitter finally announced that it was going to make some changes to the trending page, to combat misinformation, provide more context, and clear up users’ confusion (the question “why is this trending?” has been asked over half a million times throughout the last year, according to a statement from the platform, which isn’t exactly a good sign). 

Specifically, Twitter will pin a “representative tweet” to some trends from now on: “to give you more insight about a trend right away.”

“A combination of algorithms and our curation team determine if a tweet represents a trend by evaluating if the tweet is very reflective of the trend and popular,” the platform adds. “Our algorithms are designed to identify representative tweets that aren’t potentially abusive, spam, or posted by accounts trying to take advantage of our system.”

This might stop people thinking that their favourite celebrity is dead every time their name crops up, and clear up some of the initial confusion about why a given topic is trending. However, even Twitter acknowledges that the update is “just a small step in the right direction.” There’s still no clear sign of changes to the way topics reach the trending page, which can often be manipulated by bots or masses of accounts with a particular agenda.

In fact, this has led some critics to call for Twitter to get rid of the trending page altogether, especially in the run-up to the 2020 US election, when the spreading of conspiracy theories and misinformation is at its most prolific and its most dangerous. 

Of course, the campaign itself has (kind of ironically) latched onto a hashtag to spread the message – #UntrendOctober – with supporters including Sacha Baron Cohen, who recently tweeted: “@Twitter is a super-spreader of lies and hate. Tweet @jack and tell him to pause Trending Topics before the election. Stop disinformation. Save democracy.”

For now, however, Twitter seems committed to reform. In its statement about the new changes, the platform adds: “There is more we can do to help people understand why something is trending and to provide transparency around how something trends. We need to make trends better and we will.”