Last summer, with misinformation swirling about the death of Jeffrey Epstein, I joined the chorus of voices calling for an end to Twitter’s trending topics. The feature is generated by algorithms with little editorial oversight, is easily gamed by bots and bad actors, and yet continues to drive the news cycle anyway. Get rid of it — or have humans run it — and Twitter would only be better for it.
Many of those arguments have been re-litigated over the past day as journalists dig into #NeverWarren, a hashtag that was briefly trending on Twitter in the wake of a dustup between Democratic presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Warren spoke sharply to Sanders after their most recent debate. Here’s Eric Newcomer at Bloomberg:
On Wednesday morning, the hashtag #NeverWarren appeared at the top of Twitter’s trending topics. As of late Wednesday afternoon it had been mentioned more than 80,000 times, according to Ben Nimmo, director of investigations for social media monitoring company Graphika. “It looks like it started off among some long-standing Sanders supporters,” he wrote in an email, “but the most striking thing is that all the most-retweeted posts are of people criticizing the hashtag and the mentality behind it, and/or calling for unity.”
As Nimmo notes, the hashtag seemed to trend not because a critical mass of Democrats was tweeting outrage at Warren, but rather because Warren supporters were outraged that anyone had tweeted with a #NeverWarren hashtag. Still, an untold number of Americans may have seen the trend on Wednesday and assumed that some groundswell of anti-Warren sentiment had suddenly materialized. It was a classic example of people on Twitter bringing more attention to something than it deserved, in ways that work against their interests.
At Vox.com, Emily Stewart points out that the overall effect of misleading trends like #NeverWarren is to undermine confidence in our information sphere generally and in Twitter specifically:
As has been the case with so many viral hashtags and discussions on Twitter, the incident has again shown that when it comes to what’s gaining traction on the internet, we still have a hard time telling what’s real, what’s fake, and what’s being spread by whom. How much of the activity around #NeverWarren is generated by bots? How much of it comes from the so-called Bernie Bros, the online army behind the Vermont senator? And how much of it comes from Warren supporters trying to combat the #NeverWarren hashtag, or reporters tweeting about it, who are inadvertently causing it to trend higher on Twitter?
“It certainly harkens back to what we saw in 2016, and what we know happened in 2016. ... And there’s no reason for us to think that the same disinformation efforts that happened in 2016 aren’t happening right now,” said Whitney Phillips, a Syracuse University professor who studies media literacy and online ethics. “And so it creates this low level of paranoia with what you’re even looking at.”
The discussion about #NeverWarren has once again focused attention on the needless harm that Twitter trends inflict on the news cycle. But it occurs to me that we should probably save some of our scorn for the hashtag, too.
The hashtag is ubiquitous on social networks today, but it was born on Twitter. On August 23rd, 2007, Chris Messina suggested adding what had previously been known as the pound sign to a keyword, so as to make searching for other tweets on the same topic easier. Two years later, Twitter made hashtags a native feature of the product, letting you click on a hashtag to see a page with search results. Trending topics followed in 2010.
Hashtags remain useful for organizing discussion around breaking news, such as wildfires; conferences and other temporary gatherings of folks who may not follow one another; and broad-based social movements, such as #MeToo. But when it comes to big, messy subjects like politics, hashtags are beginning to look dated.
Last year I wrote about the launch of Twitter topics, which allow you to follow subjects related to sports, gaming, and entertainment. In the past, fans of a music group like BTS might have added a hashtag to every relevant post to help fans find their tweets. But with the launch of Topics, Twitter’s algorithms are now doing that work, elevating popular tweets to everyone else who follows it. And in my own experience, they organize tweets around subjects better than hashtags ever did.
You can’t yet follow politics as a Twitter topic — company executives have expressed concern about the tweets such a topic might amplify, and are proceeding with caution. And yet it seems possible that political topics would do a better job elevating the day’s coverage than hashtags, which can compress meaning so much that — as in the case of #NeverWarren — they become all but useless.
Hashtags — unlike trending topics — still have their place on Twitter. (They’ve always felt more at home on Instagram, where they continue to help users acquire followers around their interests.) But I can’t help but feel that on Twitter, the hashtag is getting a little long in the tooth. And so long as they’re driving news cycles, we can expect them to continue spreading misleading information.
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.
🔼 Trending up: Facebook disaster maps are helping organizations like Direct Relief respond to the Australia bushfires. The maps illustrate how populations are evacuating and whether they have access to cellular networks.
🔃 Trending sideways: Instagram removed a “false” label from an edited photo of rainbow-colored mountains, effectively reversing an earlier decision from one of its third-party fact-checkers. The label sparked fears that the company would begin removing artistic images for being “false.” (Blake Montgomery / The Daily Beast)
🔽 Trending down: Twitter apologized for allowing hate groups like neo-Nazis and people with homophobic or transphobic viewpoints to be microtargeted by advertisers. “We’re very sorry this happened and as soon as we were made aware of the issue, we rectified it,” the company said.
⭐ House Democrats released dozens of pages of new documents related to the impeachment inquiry into President Trump. The documents show just how influenced Giuliani and his associates Lev Parnas and Robert F. Hyde were by the right-wing online echo chamber. Ryan Broderick at BuzzFeed explains:
On March 27, 2019, Parnas sent by far the most obscure piece of media in the exchange, a YouTube video titled “Trumps takedown of FBI (Winning montage!).” The YouTube channel it comes from has only nine subscribers. By the time Parnas texted it, it was already a year old, having all but died in obscurity. As of this week, it’s only been watched around 4,000 times.
But the video did receive a bit of activity from Trump supporters the week it was dropped into Parnas’s WhatsApp, though. That week, it was featured on r/The_Donald in a post titled “SOON,” was promoted heavily by QAnon-affiliated Twitter accounts, and was tweeted several times by one account called “Deplorable Nurse Ratchett luvs Q.”
The majority of links Parnas sent Hyde that March were all being heavily shared within radicalized communities like Reddit and by conspiratorial pro-Trump influencers on Twitter. If Parnas wasn’t directly visiting r/The_Donald, the WhatsApp chat logs released on Tuesday night make it clear that he was drawing his misinformation from the same well. It also gives us a better understanding of how Parnas used pro-Trump internet ephemera to reinforce what Hyde was doing in Ukraine — even if the investigation was based on internet conspiracy theories.
No matter how President Trump’s impeachment trial plays out in the Senate, the process is unlikely to change very many minds. That’s partly because of partisanship, and partly because people are too inundated with information, some of which is intentionally misleading. (Sean Illing / Vox)
Mike Bloomberg will ask tech billionaires to support his presidential campaign in a private reception with some of Silicon Valley’s biggest power brokers this evening. The briefing shows Bloomberg is not shy about seeking the backing of Big Tech, unlike some of his Democratic rivals. (Theodore Schleifer / Recode)
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi took another swipe at Facebook over the social media giant’s reluctance to police disinformation, calling its executives “accomplices for misleading the American people.” (Dustin Gardiner / San Francisco Chronicle)
Facebook’s problems moderating deepfakes will only get worse in 2020, James Vincent argues in The Verge. The company can’t ban them altogether, and new apps like Doublicat make creating manipulated media easier and cheaper than ever before.
New Urban Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens, a popular (and hilarious) Facebook meme group, endorsed Bernie Sanders for president. (Andrew J. Hawkins / The Verge)
The Turkish government lifted its two-and-a-half-year ban on Wikipedia on Wednesday. The move came after the country’s top court ruled that blocking it was unconstitutional.
⭐ WhatsApp has delayed its plans to introduce advertising in the app. Instead, it’s focusing on paid tools for businesses, report Jeff Horwitz and Kirsten Grind:
WhatsApp in recent months disbanded a team that had been established to find the best ways to integrate ads into the service, according to people familiar with the matter. The team’s work was then deleted from WhatsApp’s code, the people said.
The shift marks a detour in the social-media giant’s quest to monetize WhatsApp, which it bought in a blockbuster $22 billion acquisition in 2014 that has yet to pay financial dividends despite the service being used by more than 1.5 billion people globally.
Google is now valued by the stock market at $1 trillion. It’s the fourth American company to reach the milestone, after Apple, Amazon and Microsoft. (Daisuke Wakabayashi / New York Times)
Armslist, a website that lets people easily buy and sell guns online, has taken a hands-off approach to moderating content on its platform, critics say. An investigation from The Verge in collaboration with The Trace reveals hundreds of users who may be skirting un control laws. The Verge’s Colin Lecher and Sean Campbell have the story:
As Amazon began searching for its second headquarters in 2017, CEO Jeff Bezos sought an additional $1 billion for future real-estate projects. The money was separate from any economic incentives the company might win for its second-headquarters project. (Shayndi Raice and Dana Mattioli / The Wall Street Journal)
Fans of popular podcasts are forming Facebook groups to talk about what they’ve heard. But the conversations are rarely just about the shows. Instead, members get sidetracked andfrequently go on tangents, talking about their failed marriages and parenting. (Taylor Lorenz / The New York Times)
Social media influencers are increasingly sharing about the mental health issues brought on by viral fame. Many are choosing to take breaks from the spotlight, risking their numbers in exchange for a moment of reprieve. (Natalie Jarvey / The Hollywood Reporter)
A USC student and TikTok star with 1.6 million followers explains how influencers make money on the viral video sharing app. (Amanda Perelli / Business Insider)
Slate asked journalists, scholars, and advocates to rank the most evil companies in tech. While the usual suspects are all there, so are a bunch of scary spyware companies may not be familiar with.
These days, Tim Cook and Mark Zuckerberg are regularly at odds over privacy and other issues. But in 2008, an Apple television commercial promoting the then-new iPhone had Facebook at its centerpiece. An absolutely wild find from the archives sent in by a reader. Watch it and marvel.