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Almost half of local Twitter trending topics in Turkey are fake – study (epfl.ch)
485 points by FridayoLeary on June 2, 2021 | hide | past | favorite | 181 comments

The original source is much better written and explains the core of what the paper actually uncovers:

> [...] found a vulnerability in the algorithm that decides Twitter Trending Topics: it does not take deletions into account. This allows attackers to push the trends they want to the top of Twitter Trends despite deleting their tweets which contain the candidate trend shortly afterwards.

Source: https://actu.epfl.ch/news/mass-scale-manipulation-of-twitter...

Paper: https://arxiv.org/pdf/1910.07783.pdf

Thanks for that. When I read the headline, I wondered if they were talking about Twitter's own manipulation of what trends or not.

Thanks. I just tried to change the URL to the one you suggested but i don't seem to be able to. Oh well. I guess i will just have to appeal to dang and sit back and let him sort it out.

I think this must be happening on every social media platform in some way. The fact is that people seem to love being afraid and anxious. Bad news spreads like wild fire. All that X bad actor has to do is just figure out any worrying take on a topic of choice and then just sit back and watch the mayhem.

I also think the most likely originators of this content are state actors. If they can pay a group of people to drop intellectual bombs in the public spheres of their enemies all day, I'm sure they see that as an overall (and very cheap) win. Honestly, it's more a question of why they wouldn't do this than why would they.

> The fact is that people seem to love being afraid and anxious

They don't love it, but it does compel them to engage with the content. Engagement = growth. Social media is basically a cancer. There are good pockets here and there if curated carefully, but overall it seems like it's a drain on society.

My concern is that it creates a false sense of reality. As people become more consumed by technology, the content of the technology becomes their reality. To be delusional is my greatest fear.

That's definitely true. I have a family member that was doing a running program as part of physical therapy. One day they said they were afraid to go running alone because they read about a girl getting kidnapped while she was out for a run. Turns out it happened over 1000 miles away, but the constant fearmongering and outrage bait has warped their perception to think that kind of stuff is happening everywhere all the time.

For a few weeks I lived with people whose world view seemed shaped by popular news channels on TV. They seemed genuinely and constantly worried about getting mugged / raped / murdered / burgled in their perfectly quiet and innocent suburban neighbourhood. It has been years since then but this disconnect between reality and their perception still boggles my mind. And it really has me worried that it is not an isolated thing.

Also can make people think that others in a place nearby are dangerous and evil all of them, and in that way keep conflicts alive or start new.

> For a few weeks I lived with people whose world view seemed shaped by ..

I wonder, what could have been things to say, that could have helped them to stop looking at the world in that way

Unplugging the TV would have helped I suppose

Or giving them something else to think about, but what?

> I wonder, what could have been things to say, that could have helped them to stop looking at the world in that way

I'm not sure, I feel like you can't change people unless they want to be changed. I'd say lead by example and show that it can be different.

Personally I try my best not to judge people by looks. I've had some questionable looking people asking for help in the past. And they turned out to genuinely need help and it was easy to do and it felt good to do. Things like letting someone use my phone, getting their diabetic dog out of the sun and home, helping with public transport because they got shitfaced the night before and couldn't work out how to get home.

It also helps having been on the other side of it. No one wanted to even let nerdy-looking teenage me use their phone. My car broke down and I didn't have credit on my prepaid phone to call for help. Apparently not a single person I approached had a phone on them. Yeah, whatever...

> unless they want to be changed

Yes, I agree. And, sometimes people would want to change/do-things-differently, but they don't yet know that there are alternatives? ... Anyway, leading by example seems like a good idea.

Maybe saying "I just read this book ... Did you hear about it?" to indirectly helping someone start thinking about reading books -- instead of giving a lecture about problems with FB

> I've had some questionable looking people asking for help in the past. And they turned out to genuinely need help

I like the things you're doing :-)

> My car broke down and ...

Makes me wonder, how did you and the car get back home in the end :-)

> Maybe saying "I just read this book ... Did you hear about it?" to indirectly helping someone start thinking about reading books -- instead of giving a lecture about problems with FB

Yeah, maybe. Though reading books is yet another one of those things.

> Makes me wonder, how did you and the car get back home in the end :-)

Hah. It was in Germany. The car broke down on the exit of the highway. I ended up walking to the next town and asking people along the way. In the end a lady working in their front garden let me use their phone. It always stuck with me because she was the only person that I asked that wasn't German and at the same time the only person that had no issues with me using their phone. I called up roadside assistance and it all worked out from there.

I did consider dropping by with some flowers at a later point to say thanks. I never went through with it though, and pretty much forgot about it until writing this comment. Oh well, it would have been a nice gesture.

Ok, interesting to read :-)

I'd guess that she who lent you her phone, forgot about it somewhat soon, I'd guess she didn't think about it much. Yes would have been a nice gesture, she'd have remembered that forever :-)

I read someones comment that put this into perspective, here was the basic take:

In repressive regimes, social media is a boon for the general public to organize and resist.

In established democracies, social media has slow insidious negative effect on the general population, typically propaganda supplied by the disillusioned and said repressive regimes.

Social media triggered the Arab Spring which destroyed nations.

I think this is an aspect of a general network security problem. Another example is how the internet or phone system turns people in developing countries into targets for scammers worldwide. We just assume it's a inherently good thing that everyone can be connected to anyone else. But these are the downsides it creates.

web 2.0 makes one miss pubs

Every centralized "open to everyone" social media platform, yes. No "trends" on Mastodon though, so you don't have to worry about this BS on there, and blocking instances that allow bots/spam is easy. :)

Simple solution -- dont get your news from places that let anyone post. https://blog.nillium.com/fighting-misinformation-online/

It's not so simple though. Because even trusted curators and media organizations still feel obligated on some level to maximize engagement. To compete with social media, they often end up promoting and peddling similarly terrifying, pessimistic, and "engaging" content.

If anyone can post, you can see all the possible opinions. On sites with moderated content, you see only one sided opinions.

Whoever downvotes this (??): Am I wrong? You think Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, Instagram, VK, Tumblr, LinkedIn etc. are not having their algorithms/feeds exploited by bot-posted content? Even the most cursory search on the web reveals countless reports.

Here are just a couple:





I don't know why you're being downvoted. Decentralization is effective at limiting the effectiveness of misinformation. It's more difficult to impersonate a legitimate user in a smaller community.

Fear is a much more powerful and simple emotion than contentment or happiness. That's why things spread like wildfire, particularly in conservative circles. Often completely fake news circulates before there is any hope of quelling it.

"Relevance" is not the signal that people think it is. It can be trusted when it is coming from people we've already vetted, but at a mass scale, it is easily weaponized to manufacture and manipulate public opinion. An algorithm that decides relevance can be gamed, as we see here.

These features won't go away, however. Twitter and the media at large rely on the veneer of relevance to ensure they retain an audience.

Twitter is so much more peaceful if you set the location to use for trends to some country whose language you cannot read, or a region for which there simply exist no twitter trends (e.g. Åland Islands).

Better yet do like me and don't have an account. My days are bliss. No trolls. No discussion/arguments about NOTHING. The definition of Peace is not having a Twitter or Facebook account.

I knew a guy in college who was always angry about something.

One day he gave up twitter and it turns out he was really intelligent and pleasant to be around.

This. I've quit using Twitter (and almost every other social media platform afterwards except Instagram which is basically my portfolio) and my level of frustration went down by an order of magnitude since then.

Better yet install the Calm Twitter chromium extension and you'll never have to look at them again.

I just follow a bunch of people, I never click on trends or hashtags.

Since the information-dense redesign I've been using the minimal twitter plugin (discovered on HN) which removes fluff like trending topics.

Experience has been great and highly recommend:

- https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/min-twitter/

- https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/minimal-twitter/po...

Can anyone recommend an Android/iOS app that does the same thing?

I use Tweetbot on iOS.

Interesting, but is it news? This is what ad-tech does, and what every political party hires advertising and PR agencies and influencers to do. I thought the deal was those trends were talking points for people for whom spending on this is worth it, and that's what made it interesting. It's "what some people will pay to have you to believe," it never occurred to me that social media trends were organic functions of real aggregated human desire. I think (at least young people) have a sense of what is real or not.

Do people not already know that their passive understanding of the world is very tightly managed and orchestrated by people whose job is to be good at it?

> The researchers contacted Twitter twice, with the company acknowledging in both cases the vulnerability in its Trends algorithm. In the first case Twitter declined to make any changes, in the second case the company did not respond to the researchers' follow-up emails.

Treating this issue as a technical "vulnerability," mainly reinforces the idea that Twitter's narrative orchestration is somehow more real.

Yes, what's newsworthy is that an in-depth study has concluded some specific quantities about just how manipulated the trends are. Rather than "yeah, you can just tell that stuff is manipulated", they have concrete analysis to substantiate that.

While I understand that, the conflict that makes this analysis important is based on reasserting a presumption that Twitter and its trends represent organic sentiment or desire. Make no mistake, the entire social media business model is predicated on disinformation (outrage for ad engagement), and the only real problem they are running up against is how to keep doing as much harm they are doing without being regulated out of existence.

Good on them for publishing, but concrete analysis in this case is faint praise, and imo, it's going to look like astroturfed tobacco science in 10 years.

People outside of tech have no concept of what the algorithm does and in general take what’s on their feed at face value. How could they not? The news very often runs stories about tweets and Twitter trends as if they represent the real organic sentiments of the citizens.

> "This manipulation has serious implications because we know that Twitter Trends get attention. Broader media outlets report on trends, which are used as a proxy for what people are talking about, but unfortunately, it's a manipulated proxy, distorting the public view of what conversations are actually going on,"

This is definitely news and I would hope that this makes members of the media writing stories about "people up in arms" a twitter trend.

In the US only 1 in 5 people use twitter. When something trends I would love to see how many people that really is. 1 in 50? 1 in 500? 1 in 5000? I wish I had the time and skills to really show the statistics because I don't think it's all that viable until it's used in the media and / or politicians.

"for each thing "everyone knows" by the time they're adults, every day there are, on average, 10,000 people in the US hearing about it for the first time."

~ https://xkcd.com/1053/

It's news. Advertising and using PR agencies might not be news but using hacked accounts as bots to push whatever slogan you want to on top of Twitter (like hate speech "Syrians Get Out" as stated in the article) easily should be news.

I suspect this rather obvious flaw (from the article: not taking deletion into account when calculating trends) is due to it being easier to create a data pipeline that is purely additive at the scale they're operating at. Not having to consider deletions and updates simplifies development. This is too much of a vulnerability not to fix, though. It amazes me Twitter somehow manages to remain relevant with how broken it is in various ways.

Deletion is easy if you're using ML based on feature vectors to extract "trends", because you can just add one of the opposite vector and the system is still purely "additive" at scale.

Not if you're using probabilistic data structures like Count-Min[0]. You don't care about the exact count. You just want an estimate with a certain probability. Such structures only support addition, not removal.

[0] - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Count%E2%80%93min_sketch

Popular and trending have long lost their meaning in my mind.

I automatically assume there's some commercial/political/whatever actor manufacturing these things.

Organic popularity is basically dead at this point.

If I check twitter in the morning, almost any "trending in Canada" topic that is political in nature is full of "firstnamebunchofnumbers" type accounts pushing the trend. They are all very supportive of our right leaning political party...

FirstnameBunchofNumbers is I think just how Twitter creates new accounts these days. They removed the ability or requirement to come up with an @name, and just create it based on the first name of the user.

What you're seeing is an artifact of when a certain demographic started using Twitter.

This is true, and while you can still change @name in the options, it is sort of buried in there.

It's just a return to numbernames. AOL did the same thing back in the 90s and 00s.

When I signed up for a twitter account I was immediately followed by some 'local' person who described themself as "a former libtard who saw the light".

Her posts would often mention being at some local business, but describe it in a weirdly akward way...and of course fake news spam.

I know another variant: alphanumeric usernames with exactly 8 characters. All lower, no underscores or other characters, always 8 characters, spamming around. Very common with Turkish fake news. Probably all generated by a bot.

Strange. I always get all far left-wing stuff, and it's not even high-quality left-wing argumentation but just the absolute sewer of left-wing rhetoric. I'm very curious whether Twitter's algorithm is designed (or exploited) to show us things that it thinks we'll agree with (I'm a moderate liberal, so maybe it thinks I'm a partisan and I'll just love extreme left-wing stuff?) or stuff it thinks we'll be angry about? Or maybe it shows everyone the same far-left drivel?

Hmmm, I'm also a moderate liberal and my main Twitter stream reflects that, it's the trending topics that skew right for me.

If you can call it "right", it's mostly invective, calls for resignation and skewed/unfounded criticisms of our Prime Minister.

I mean, there is plenty of real stuff to criticize but the criticisms are mostly unfounded instead.

The Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma exposed the algorithms are designed to create "engagement" or clicks, that may look different for different people. If you happen to begin clicking links that make you angry you will have a feed that skews towards the kinds of posts that infuriate you (this is typical - rage really sucks most of us in). If you select links with puppies all day long, that is what you are going to get, puppies. I have personally seen this in my YouTube feed. If I select two or three videos on a particular topic all of the sudden my feed is filled with those videos. Personally it is really aggravating. I may want to watch one or two videos about JRR Tolkien, but I don't want to see a bunch of fan theory LOTR videos.

> skewed/unfounded criticisms of our Prime Minister

reverse phycology? If all criticism you see is unfounded, you might erroneously start to believe all critics are biased - a kind of false-flag strategy.

Are "moderate liberals" the ones who like Biden, don't mind the ongoing multiple wars in the ME, the incessant renewal of the Patriot Act, the treatment of Assange, etc?

Not trynna antagonise, I'm genuiuely curious if all that bollocks is hiding behind the oh-so benign sounding "moderate liberal" label.

I'm Canadian, so none of that crap applies to me ...

The US democratic party platform is pretty "right" by Canadian standards.

Those are establishment politics, not moderate liberalism. But yeah, moderate liberal politicians (like politicians of all ideological brands) often act out of line with their professed ideology in favor of establishment interests.

I'm a moderate liberal only in the sense that my politics tend to be moderately liberal, but "moderate liberals" aren't my tribe (indeed, I don't have a political tribe--I'm very independent in that regard). This is all to say that I don't take offense to criticism of other moderate liberals because how a few moderate liberals behave doesn't define me.

>I'm very curious whether Twitter's algorithm is designed (or exploited) to show us things that it thinks we'll agree with (I'm a moderate liberal, so maybe it thinks I'm a partisan and I'll just love extreme left-wing stuff?) or stuff it thinks we'll be angry about? Or maybe it shows everyone the same far-left drivel?

My theory: There is no coherent theory of operations like "Show the leftists to the leftists"; rather, it's doing constant A/B-test-style optimization between drivel varieties to see which one best inspires the cohort matching your doomscrolling patterns to continue to scroll.

It's anecdotal, but my trending pane is usually filled with mostly hard left trends, the occasional right wing trend, with the left trends being frequently selected to be sloppily editorialized by Twitter staff. I'm certainly on the right wing. More likely, it'll show you what's likely to make you engage, and there's no quicker way than to show you things which make you angry.

What are some examples of hard left trends?

Usually directing attention to Twitter mobs by framing a given topic in a hard-left worldview. Usually this is done through passive voicing or bizarre whataboutism.

Dug through some I've captured to share with others. https://imgur.com/a/8Ypqq4y

Mind that most of these are going to be vague out of context, unless you recall the specific events surrounding them. They're there to stir the pot when it's already boiling, or to start a flame when they believe a subject deserves more outraged voices.

Both the major political parties are to be investigated in India as well for seemingly banal hastags which individual IT cells in the hinterland want to propagate. You'd be hard pressed to find someone from the city or towns being so pressed to tweet about a political party & nothing else on Twitter of all places & content

Twitter India is a cesspool. Political parties spend so much energy asking tweeting against each other, you would think Indians have a large presence on Twitter and would care about such things. But the reality is that Twitter has the smallest footprint in India among the major social networks. I wouldn't be surprised if a double digit percentage of Twitter India users were affiliated to one of the political parties.

I suggest to anyone using twitter to either add rules to your ad blocker to remove the trends section or use an extension like Tweak New Twitter to remove it. It makes Twitter so much nicer to visit when you don't have those stupid trends shoved in your face making it seem like you should constantly be anxious or depressed about the state of the world.

Two years ago I changed my trends location to a county whose language I can't read (Japan). The trends box still exists, but I can't read it and can't care about any so-called trends.

I personally have the trends country set to one that doesn't usually have a very big (or any) presence on Twitter (e.g. British Indian Ocean Territory, Falkland Islands, ...). This makes the "Trends for you" part of the page empty.

Thanks for this hack. I found it hilarious (and useful).

Great tip! Surprisingly awkward to do, but well worth it.

That's amazing. I picked the country Chad and I see no trends at all! With word and account blocking, I get good control over what I see, even in the official Twitter app. (A good number of the control methods, like disabling like numbers, are only available via browser extension.)

I wonder if it'll start filling up if enough users do this

No, that's not how it works. The only way it would start getting content is if users actually started tweeting from those remote locations, which seems unlikely.

...or someone figures out that appearing to tweet from that location suddenly puts their tweets in front of a lot of eyeballs.

brilliant - thanks

Some years ago I did something similar with Facebook - switched my location to North Korea and voila all advertisements disappeared. Later, it stopped working and even later Airbnb (where I foolishly linked the account) asked me to accept new terms of use but I couldn't because they blocked anyone from North Korea from using Airbnb.

If you're using uBlock Origin, here are some of the filters that the author, gorhill, uses to strip out things like Trending Now.


Is there any github repo or article or something with a collection of every ip list, filter snippet, configurations one could/should want in their browser extensions (UBO, umatrix, etc)? I want pretty stringent defaults, but I understand why site altering defaults aren't there in the base extension, but I'm also not motivated to google for every permutation of things one could want.

Thank you! I use an extension on Firefox for Windows but I had no solution for Android. I'll try this!

Is there a way to do this in Safari? I notice that this extension isn't available :/

I use adguard for Safari but I'm not sure if the filters would be identical. It does have a "filter this element" option.

Thanks! my twitter experience is already more positive.

If you want to stop using Facebook, go through your friends list and unfollow everyone. You can still see what they are up to by visiting their pages and can still message them but it breaks the addiction. You will also realize, as you visit peoples pages, that almost nobody you know posts about themselves, it’s all news and memes and outrage

I just unfollow the people that only post memes and outrage.

My Facebook feed is mostly photos of my friends lives and I actually do enjoy seeing what they're up to. There's still memes and news articles but most of the really toxic stuff is gone.

Also,in another area, 'People also ask/search for' section of Google. Worst offender when it comes to spoilers (movies/shows/books...). You just want to search something about one character and there it is, recommended search "who killed x", "why did x die" etc.

Twitter trends can also be spoilerish in that way, although it's usually more ambigous.

Tweak New Twitter has made the Twitter experience so much nicer for me. I basically only follow 2 categories of people: People I know and artists. With retweets in a separate tab, I only see the content I signed up for when I clicked the follow button. It's fantastic.

Yes, I can only agree. I even wrote a blog post about it in 2018 [1] because the design was so annoying.

[1] https://schleiss.io/fixing-twitter-design-with-extension

Ive started using the "Calm Twitter" extension which hides both trends and social signals (number of likes and retweets, tho they're still visible on hover).

Together with the time-based ordering, it has made twitter a much quieter experience.

Maybe it's because I'm in Germany but I use Twitter daily and have almost never more than glanced at the trends. It's as easy to ignore as seeing a front page of a newspaper on the street or a sponsored result in Google.

In the same vein, I actively unfollow or hide all forms of news on Facebook. Including friends who just can’t help but post political commentary all the time.

Now my feed is funny, sports, friends and family.

Did this too. Now my whole feed is mushroom foraging groups and I sort of like Facebook again.

I use 200% zoom so that only tweets and navigation icons are visible.

You'll be even better off if you just stop using twitter. Twitter is highly manipulated by twitter, than by bots, then by brigading, etc etc.

Ultimately it's a weird armpit of the internet elevated by the attention of journalists to something that simply does not deserve attention, and on whom attention actively damages your perception of reality.

Minimal Twitter is a nice chrome extension: https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/minimal-twitter/po...

Tweetdeck also does not display trends unless you add a column for them.

Huh, I use the official Twitter app on Android, and I don't even notice the "trends" - only time I even see the option to see them is if I use the search function.

> either add rules to your ad blocker to remove the trends section


What is the "fake" rate for twitter normally? I don't know whether the fact that half in one area are fake means anything. If someone tole me that 90+% of all twitter traffic came from bots or other "fake" sources I would believe it.

>> "We found that 47% of local trends in Turkey and 20% of global trends are fake, created from scratch by bots.

How am I meant to read that? By 'trend' do they mean trending posts? Does 'fake' mean created from scratch by bots? Are these AI bots generating their own content? If a russian operative is feeding stories to a bot, does that material qualify as fake? What if a bot picks up a non-fake but incorrect story and spreads it to a billion people? Is is fakery if a Microsoft bot finds and retweets a customer review of Windows 10? What about fake stories that are promoted by real people?

Interesting ... big tech oligarchs manipulating social media is ok, somebody hacking the trends algo is bad ...

An easy way to never see Twitter trends is to open up the settings and change it from showing personalized or current location trends, to showing trends for a country that does not have many Twitter users.

This can be interesting in it's own sake. Learn what's going on in Bhutan or Burkina Faso.

Twitter cracked down on bots recently[0].

Last time I checked you need to verify your account with a phone number. However this is a trivial hurdle to overcome since dedicated bot farmers would use Twilio or some similar service to register Twitter accounts en-masse

[0] https://www.dawn.com/news/1391001/twitter-sets-crackdown-on-...

[0] https://www.cultofmac.com/530455/twitter-crackdown-on-bots/

Twitter keeps saying they’ve “cracked down” on bots and yet the bots are still just as much of a problem as they’ve ever been. I’d been on twitter for over decade — back when you tweeted via SMS — and deleted my account in the run up to the US election because it was impossible to discern real content from the content designed to churn the outrage machine. Whoever uses the term “crack down” to describe Twitter’s periodic deletion of only the most egregious bot accounts deserves an auto-reply meme bot featuring Inigo Montoya.

How many phone numbers are there? How many phone numbers does twilio have access to? Seems like it would at least put a cap on the number of problematic accounts.

That becomes problematic, since often numbers are 'recycled' by the likes of Twilio, and the number has some history or previous use, probably used before to register social media accounts. The trick is to find a brand new fresh number that hasn't been used ;)

Twitter manipulates the trending topics themselves to fit whatever agenda is needed

Since social media is sorta supplanting traditional news I wonder if that's level of inaccuracy is actually that surprising. How many potential articles come across an editors desk - or as pushed out by a company's PR department - that are just BS?

Social media has democratized editorializing so these topics get put in front of a lot more faces - in the process we are dodging some of the worst components of censorship, but it is a tradeoff and I think which approach is better (centralized or decentralized editorialship) is still an open question.

> Since social media is sorta supplanting traditional news I wonder if that's level of inaccuracy is actually that surprising. How many potential articles come across an editors desk - or as pushed out by a company's PR department - that are just BS?

You make a fair point; a lot of news is either poorly researched or biased. That being said, at least MOST news outlets are trying to get to the truth. They may be lazy, uninformed, or incapable of viewing the world objectively instead of through a specific ideological lens, but they are trying. Truth seeking is not the goal for many people posting to social media. You call the content "editorialized" but it's more like fiction and deliberate disinformation.

I don't disagree with any of that but I wanted to clarify my point - it's that social media is our way of (mostly) removing the editorial filter from the process - so we're essentially reading all the news - as opposed to "all the news that's fit to print". I'd imagine that twitter's trending section doesn't look all too different from an editor's desk with random unsolicited story submissions along with press releases from companies all flooding in with a good portion of them being just entirely false and a larger portion being exceedingly misleading.

Instead of relying on a professional to filter those down and potentially remove some stories we'd really like to see (i.e. some stories critical of the War in Iraq that countered the yellow cake and WMD narrative pushed by the administration) we now have to sort through all the crap - aided somewhat by the decisions of others who have expressed their opinion on whether a thing is a real story or not by engaging with it. Part of my interest in the story also comes from the fact that 50% is probably far higher a proportion of "true news" than what would actually reach the desk on the editor.

And, I'd like to reiterate that I'm still very much on the fence about which system is better.

That makes sense. Upon reading your initial post again more carefully, I realized that I misinterpreted what you were trying to say. Thank you for clarifying.

The only reason the automated Twitter Trends exist is to keep Twitter itself relevant, as it generates lazy pseudo-journalism articles such as "such and such was a trend".

It's merely a tool that reacts to spam. Even when it's for a good cause it's just people manipulating an algorithm by saying absolutely nothing of value.

Nothing of value to the humanity will be lost if they nuke this feature tomorrow.

What I didn't understand was why this is even a problem, but they explain it in the article:

> Broader media outlets report on trends, which are used as a proxy for what people are talking about

Fair enough that Twitter doesn't want to be manipulated, I can understand that. Still it should not have a real world impact in my mind. Except that you're right in that "lazy pseudo-journalism" picks this stuff up and report on it, as if it was real news, without doing any fact finding of their own. It's a silly "what's trending" box, it's not actually a source you can use, because we don't know what the criteria Twitter uses to generate it.

News media is moving to fast, and there's a desire to provide 24/7 news coverage, on a budget, so they resort to using whatever silly online gadget is available. Journalist should be WAY more critical about using Twitter and tweets as actual sources of news.

Exactly. You have to wonder if this is what's responsible for cancel culture. Issues being called out that have only become an issue recently. It could explain how it's out of control it has become.

I certainly think that's one reason. There are way to many stupid posts from Twitter, and Facebook, which are blown completely out of proportion and taken to level of conflict which wouldn't have happened previously.

Sure there are absolutely some issues from social media that are worth highlighting in the news media, but all shit storms and online controversies aren't created equally. To often one or two posts are taken out of context, especially on Twitter where people try to cram their message into as few words as possible. That is then elevated to "This person is horrible" or "All people in this group are bad".

The reality is that some people are just assholes, and while annoying and terrible, it's simply not worth writing about.

it's simply not worth writing about.

We would need to convince people in society that it's not "worth writing about", which isn't going to happen. It's radical information freedom. People get access to information they would never have had access to previously. A drawback of that is that people become free to act on information they would never have had access to previously.

The thing about Twitter, (about most social media actually), is that they are built on the reality that the vast majority of the population believe this stuff is, indeed, "worth writing about". That's how they make their money. Everyone writing about what everyone else wrote about. Business is good precisely because everyone thinks all this stuff is "worth writing about". And there is no sign anyone will meaningfully change.

I don't see much hope actually. My best advice is try to maintain your privacy. (Well, I guess also "don't be an asshole" is pretty good advice as you intimate.)

But if this study is to be believed, it shows that many of these viral storms could very well be inauthentic or non-organic. In other words, they are not naturally occurring. They only rise to people's consciousness out of nefarious intent. Take out the algorithm and you might have more sensible trending topics.

They need the outrage machine to continue running. Soon it will be a paid for service.

Thank heavens I'm not the one moderating the tweets on that hell-stew of a website.

I have a friend who is moderating a pride-relevant subreddit this month. They plan to postpone most of their social engagements in anticipation of the drama so they can keep the discussion reasonable. Imagine how it must get that they need to commit so much time

I really wish the use of twitter as a method of gauging the hoi polloi's opinion would just end.

It infects everything. I listen to podcasts and everything from coding podcasts to sports involves someone saying "i know people on twitter" or something like that before they give their thoughts.

Bro I turned the podcast to hear from you, I don't care how it relates to twitter.

A while back there was a 'fan revolt' among fans of a sports team I follow. So I hit twitter and it's as far as I can tell ... two dozen accounts and more than half had never tweeted more than 3 tweets...

Nothing of value would be lost if they nuked Twitter.

> It's merely a tool that reacts to spam.

That sentence is only meaningful in the context of this article-- one in which research uncovered spammers who found a specific way to game Twitter's algorithm in order to exploit it to skew the results.

Take away the research and the source for your sentence is either, "people who are saying..." or, "everybody on HN already knows..."

The only difference I can see between that and generating "lazy pseudo-journalism" is remuneration.

I'll try to qualify my assertion:

> It's merely a tool that reacts to what is mostly useless/placeholder/redundant/uninteresting/spam content


The current topic on my region is "#Hurentag" and the most relevant tweets are mostly "Happy #Hurentag", plus some spam from people linking to their Instagram.

The second is #getimpf which is just people making selfies, others complaining about the selfies, and some people trying to prop-up their blogs.

The third is "Switch Pro" which is one article by Verge and lots of people discussing why it's trending. Plus some blog and Instagram spam. There's also an OnlyFans spam showing up for me.

Then there's "Nintendo" which is the same as the above.

If you scroll down two pages on each topic you'll always see people posting unrelated things with the trending topic words/hashtags.

Apart from one post from The Verge on the top of "Switch Pro" and "Nintendo" there is NOTHING of value on those tweets. ZERO discussion. Nobody talking about anything.

The issue is not that it's useless. That's quite fun, actually. The issue is that it's not really a proper way of measuring what people are really talking about, because 99% of the content has NOTHING to do with the topic in question other than containing a word or hashtag.

> The only difference I can see between that and generating "lazy pseudo-journalism" is remuneration.

Not really. I'm doing this while I wait for my tests to run, so I'm definitely getting paid, probably more than journalists.

I don't use trending topics in ordinary days. It helps me a lot when something important happened recently.

An important political speech, a big earthquake, bombing... For this kind of situations, Twitter trending topics help a lot, because it provides you the most up-to-date source of news.

When critical situations happen, your priority is getting the news live. Correctness, officialness are less important. I don't know a better way to get that kind of news other than trending topics.

But you don't need trending topics for that. It can be replaced with a simple search, which is way more effective. Having important news jumping into the trending topics tend to add noise to the search because of the popularity.

I do searches all the time to check whenever Github/Jira/whatever is down, or when there's some helicopter over my neighborhood, or even in major events, but as soon as it enters trending topics it's a bit less effective.

I also thought about just using search. But trending topics let me know if something important is happening when I'm not aware. I still think it's valuable at times, while I also think it may be spammy and should be improved.

I think its low signal to noise ratio makes you ignore it, which is bad. But I think instead of just removing it, spams should be prevented more effectively. Because I know "trending" concept is useful when it works. HN, Reddit and some other aggregator sites have homepages with trending content, of course with varying degree of success.

Twitter and other media are abused by authoritarian governments, and this abuse is dangerous. Unfortunately despite the manipulation on FB , twitter etc, because the problem does not affect 'rich and important' countries it gets little attention. All of their algorithms are being manipulated by sneaky actors, and their own systems lag behind them significantly to matter.

Social media should switch back to how it started, i.e. a replacement for RSS in chronological mode.

It doesn't affect rich and important countries? Have you watched politics over the last several years?

On the flip side, is Twitter itself not "fake"? Specifically, Twitter is selective in the types of content it chooses to censor. And they're pretty open in stating that accounts "undermining faith in the NATO alliance and its stability" are not "real" accounts. Seems like they're just a belligerent party in the west vs south conflict.

Only half. They gotta be miscounting. %75 minimum.

My Twitter trending section in Ukraine last week consisted entirely of porn related hashtags (pic: https://twitter.com/jeremybernier/status/1397429733126721543...)

I've noticed that online influence campaigns are starting to really kick into gear. Any comments in news articles posted to the r/worldnews subreddit about the Uyghurs in Xinjiang that do not defend the status quo there will be downvoted to -15 or more, and if you take note of commenters, it soon becomes clear that there's a lot of brigading. Many of the comments conflate criticism of the situation with racism or a desire to start a war.

I have noticed that too, which is why I don't trust what's trending on reddit anymore. I have noticed influencers on youtube and elsewhere, who never usually talk about political issues, making out of place comments about various issues. I can't tell if the uncomfortable look on their faces or the awkward way they deliver the message that gives away the fact that they've been paid to take a side.

Twitter is a cesspool. Thanks Jack.

Centralized communication platforms with engagement-incentivization built into the experience are an excellent tool for mass manipulation and propaganda.

I never went back to twitter after their team put #uncletim on trending topic.

Added twitter to my /etc/hosts block. Not missing anything.

I quit Twitter in disgust last year, frequently triggered by the trending topics. Now when I sometimes follow a Twitter link, I avert my eyes from trending topic, like I also often do with commercials and ads. I know that such manipulation works on me to some extent, so I make some effort not to consume it.

I hope some day sophisticated AI "ad blockers" can be easily extended to such non-advertising manipulative content. But I suspect that their adversary AIs will keep up with that arms race.

You can change the location you see trending topics for. Set it to some tiny country and there' wont be anything trending. (or use an adblocker to remove the trending box, but the other thing syncs with the account to everywhere)

Yeah, I used to set mine to Japan, so I literally can't even read the trending topics. Works pretty well, except a bunch of English-text trends still get in there. :\

Is there any way to see your own deleted posts, or otherwise know if your account is being used in this way?

This jives with "The Dead Internet Theory" which says that most of the internet is AI bots.

I thought it was generally accepted that 40-50% of all traffic was bots[1]? Though since most of them are mindlessly scanning for WP vulns calling them "AI" is probably over-generous...

1: https://www.techradar.com/news/bot-traffic-reached-a-new-hig...

I imagine these are being manipulated significantly in many places.

Title should mention Turkey

looks like Twitter's tech is not enough to catch these bots

Twitter allows bot networks like these to operate as long as they're pushing Leftist propaganda (i.e. Twitter's political stance), or suppressing non-Leftist discussion. That's why they didn't respond to the researchers...because they selectively look the other way.

It's amazing how fast millions of "legitimate" Twitter accounts of Korean teenager K-Pop fanatics all of a sudden become violently interested in suppressing non-Leftist-narrative hashtags.

Edit: Here's a url for a recent blatant use of a bot network (with Twitter obviously looking the other way). The same or similar networks were used throughout the election cycle, especially when there was any mention of election fraud.


Bot networks aren't really needed, they can just be real people. Young people disproportionately use social media, young women especially so. The intersection of those two groups happen to be left leaning [0], and more socially connected which I'm using as a proxy for political awareness [1]. Plus in my general experience people are just really vocal about identity politics. It wouldn't be an unreasonable assumption that the primary demographic of a website are not a fan of content that challenges their world-views.

[0]: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/11/03/us/elections/... [1]: https://psyarxiv.com/72w58/download/?format=pdf#:~:text=The%...).

Why is it surprising that socially influenced teens are speaking out in support of liberal beliefs? Are you surprised when the sun rises every morning? This has happened for decades, and it's intrinsically tied to the cycle of how politics operate. I have a much easier time believing that a bunch of k-pop fanatics were peer-pressured into virtue signalling the Democratic party than believing that NoNameBunchOfNumbers (who made their account yesterday) supports the RNC.

[citation needed]

The research paper this article is based on covers a pretty broad spectrum of political (pro- and anti-Erdoğan), and non-political topics in Turkey.

I always assume that probably 95% or more of accounts on Twitter are fake, based on my experience. Back in 2017 or so, when QAnon was being heavily pushed by botnets, there was what looked (to me) like a leftist analogue of it[1] being pushed in the same manner, and it just didn't catch on the way QAnon did. I figured it was probably being promoted by the same people, to inflame tensions in the US. Basically, I think if you go looking for evidence that Twitter is helping people you disagree with, you'll find it, regardless of your political beliefs.

[1] No, not BLM/Antifa. It was an actual conspiracy theory with a token figurehead like "Q". I don't want to include too many details here because it seems like it died off, and I'd rather not help revive it.

My "meta conspiracy theory" is that every conspiracy theory is generated by a Russian disinformation campaign.

Actually, replace "Russian" with "Russian, Chinese, Iranian, domestic political (both sides), or corporate submarine", and it's probably not that far from the truth...

I try to pretend to be shocked, but it just comes out as "well duh"

Can someone please inspect the German Twitter trends, too?

It's an almost daily occurence that far-right vocabulary ends up trending, and the utter garbage that gets spewed there is toxic and dangerous.

What a surprise! /s

Almost everything you see on Twitter is manipulated. Bad actors, the users and even Twitter themselves do it. If it's not them on a Sunday it's the bots doing it.

The daily drama on Twitter starts with a user spreading some unverified accusations of another user which that goes viral and someone's life is destroyed. Originating from Twitter and ends up in the newspapers and on some rare cases on TV (When it is slow news day).

Don't worry though, at least we know that Twitter is so heavily manipulated, even its users would STILL pay for the lies that spread so easily on there.

> We found that 47% of local trends in Turkey and 20% of global trends are fake, created from scratch by bots. Between June 2015 and September 2019, we uncovered 108,000 bot accounts involved, the biggest bot dataset reported in a single paper. Our research is the first to uncover the manipulation of Twitter Trends at this scale. It can be some complex crypto puzzle that can be only solved by real users. We need to find a solution.

I think democracies should introduce regulations that ensures that.

* Bots cannot be created in large scale like this in social media platforms. Basically you have to be a real perso to create an account and there should be a limit on nunber of accounts one can create. Who is a real human? Twitter verified users can be one solution. Airbnb verified hosts seems to be another example. Anything is better than the current model.

* Complex Ml models for generating the time lines should be replaced with simple algorithms like sort on basis of upvotes/time. Also the users should be able to easily access what is the algorithm behind the news feed.

Ironically, asking for an ID for internet access is usually a telltale of not-so-democratic regime.

Asking for a method of payment, and using methods of payment as a factor in enforcing bans, is an entirely private sector market-based mitigation of bots and badly behaved humans.

Subscriptions are the future of worthwhile social media.

Democracy and privacy are separate.

That only works in a well-functioning non-authoritarian state. I would suspect that every major Western democracy began in secret.

No, they're not. Privacy is a human right.

And democracy is not; if people want (say) anarchy instead, they may, but they mustn't take away others' privacy.

Under ECHR democracy is elevated to a human right: https://www.coe.int/en/web/conventions/full-list/-/conventio...

(well, the right to free elections by secret ballot, which is necessary but not sufficient)

Nobody said to ask for an ID. You can verify the user is real without tying the account to the ID.

This is remarkably hard to do, and it's even harder if you want to prevent duplicate accounts.

How could you conceivably limit a service to only real users? What is a real user anyways?

One account per person? What if that person has multiple personas they're curating?

Require some form of ID verification? Well now you're talking about thousands of differing implementations.

How does one prevent click farms that leverage real fingers tapping on phones?

None of these allow a platform to scale like social networks are expected to.

While I think some careful regulation is required, I don't see how it would be legal to ban Twitter, nor possible for Twitter to entirely eliminate bots. But I think regulation could provide some carrots and sticks to encourage platforms like Twitter to be better at spotting and responding to these campaigns. Right now there's not enough incentive for them to invest much in combating bots, when their incentives are overwhelmingly to drive engagement (and advertising dollars).

Sounds authoritarian to me. Hard pass.

It's honestly surprising how earnestly people can propose such draconian measures without even considering the consequences beyond a basic surface level analysis.

Mass manipulation by foreign interests may be bad (Americans should bear in mind that for the majority of the world they are also a foreign influence), but this kind of knee-jerk reaction just paves the way for unprecedented censorship.

Likewise, I remain shocked how broad and bipartisan the support for expanding government power is. After the past four years I certainly have learned the lesson that I want to be more circumspect about what power I give the government over my life, but I seem to be in the minority here.

You would need to use zero knowledge crypto on both sides so the state doesn't know what platforms you're subscribed to, and the platform doesn't know your real identity (or what other users you have, only that you're below the limit).

It's hard but it shouldn't be impossible.

Well if a democracy elected by people decides to make this decision how is that authoritarian?

Democracy not only can be authoritarian[0], Aristotle thought that it was the inevitable outcome.

"Republics decline into democracies and democracies degenerate into despotisms."


In the same way that if a democracy elects an authoritarian then it stops being a democracy; by not respecting the rights of its citizens in the name of a political expedient.

I don't see how preventing malicious actors from using 1000s of bots to manipulate the public consensus as authoritarian.

The goal isn’t, at least not publicly, but the methods are.

But then again, authoritarians almost never come out and say “we intend to control every aspect of our citizens lives in order to maintain power”; rather they find some convenient fig leaf to hide behind.

And such is the same with your proposal; you’re advocating for greater government control over personal lives in the name of protecting citizens from other governments. Authoritarian shit, full stop.

You keep saying authoritarian a lot but you don't seen to have any logical arguments on why the proposed solution is bad. How on earth is preventing users from making 1000s of bots and influencing the public consensus bad for the democracy? I don't work for government. I don't want random people with 1000sof bots to manipulate the people around me and turn the democracy into a shitshow. I don't know how the tech companies will do it. But there should be only 1 account per person. 1 persons voice should not be worth 1000 times the voice of other people. That is not democracy.

I don't really care if two of the authors, bloggers or philosophers I follow happen to secretly be the same person, writing under pseudonyms. There being two identities doesn't make their voice count more.

If manipulating an automated system in this way makes your voice “count more”, there's a deeper problem.

You could simply force users to solve complex human CAPTCHAs if they want to post. Then sybil or bot attack becomes impossible, because there is a limit to how many trucks or bicycles any one user can recognize per day. Current methods of verifying ID would still exist, for users with accessibility issues that make it hard for them to solve CAPTCHAs.

> Then sybil or bot attack becomes impossible, because there is a limit to how many trucks or bicycles any one user can recognize per day.

• But there isn't really a limit on how many trucks or bicycles my neural net can recognise per day.

• Nor is there much of a limit on how many people I can pay pennies to solve CAPTCHAs for me.

> You keep saying authoritarian a lot but you don't seen to have any logical arguments on why the proposed solution is bad.

I do, you've either misunderstood them or ignored them. I will explain it again thoroughly.

I have no problem with your proposed goals, I take great issue with the means by which you would try and reach them. This is why "what's so wrong with <goal>?" arguments are utterly unpersuasive; you're completely ignoring the bits that I'm objecting to. It's not sufficient that you propose this to "save" democracy, as all policies good and bad come paired up with desirable (or at least popular) goals. If "we're doing this for a good reason" was sufficient, we'd be forced to conclude that there has never been a bad policy ever, which is of course ridiculous.

Your proposal involves using the power of the state to control who can and cannot talk online, and to curtail where citizens can exercise their right of free speech. This is fundamentally an authoritarian proposal, as it is the state coming in to directly control the free speech right of its citizens. That this is done to "save democracy" has a "we were forced to destroy the village in order to save it" feeling to it.

Aside from the blatant unconstitutionality of what you propose, there are two concrete issues; chilling effects and scope creep.

Serious thinkers in this area, including the judiciary, talk about the "chilling effects" that governmental action can have on free speech. Even if the government doesn't explicitly ban X or Y speech, actions it takes can have the effect of dissuading people from saying certain things. It is not hard to see how a restriction on anonymous speech would be chilling, would people not be more hesitant to criticize the government if they could not do so anonymously? With the recent debates over "cancel culture", is it not obvious that some people would prefer to express controversial ideas under a pseudonym? The courts certainly agree that anonymity is required to avoid chilling effects as "anonymity may be motivated by fear of economic or official retaliation, by concern about social ostracism, or merely by a desire to preserve as much of one's privacy as possible" (McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission).

Secondly, remember that any power you give the government will be eventually wielded by someone you do not like. It does not take an overactive imagination how the ability to ban websites "for the sake of democracy" would be eventually abused by a politician. History is littered of examples where emergency powers are eventually abused to erode the rule of law they were proposed to save; we should try and avoid such obvious mistakes moving forward.

> 1 persons voice should not be worth 1000 times the voice of other people. That is not democracy.

It seems to me that you might not actually understand what democracy actually is. Are we not a democracy because there are celebrities who have (far) more than 1,000x the reach that you or I have? Are we not a democracy because some people can go on TV to persuade, while others cannot?

No. Democracy always was about equal access to the vote, not equal access to an audience.

OR simply not treat them as relevant in their decision making?

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