Ahead of the latest U.S. election, Twitter is responding to criticism that one of its defining features, the Trending Topics sidebar, tends to promote misinformation and conspiracies. And Facebook and Google are facing stiff government regulation in Australia that could cause them to severely curtail how the two sites function Down Under.
Twitter announced Tuesday that it will be adding context to the items in the Trending Topics module, in an effort to prevent it from being gamed by bots and internet trolls as it has been frequently in the past. As the New York Times reports, the move stops short of just killing off the popular feature altogether, which some employees had been pushing for. Some users have also made the hashtag "#UntrendOctober" start trending, pushing the company to simply turn off Trending Topics until the November election.
A couple of recent examples of insane things that have landed on the Trending Topics lineup, per the Times: "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."
"Trends show what everyone is talking about right now," say Twitter product manager Frank Oppong and product trust partner Liz Lee in a blog post. "But too often, we look at one word or phrase trending on Twitter and ask, 'why is this trending?' That question was actually Tweeted over half a million times over the last year! It should be easier to understand what’s being said immediately."
The company says that some trending topics will now get a description or a representative tweet pinned to them to explain the trend. And other things may get nixed altogether by human curators or an algorithm, if they don't reflect an actual trend.
"To be clear, we know there is more work to do to improve trends and the context updates we’re announcing today are just a small step in the right direction," Oppong and Lee say.
Meanwhile, Facebook is facing a tough road ahead in Australia with regard to being a platform for sharing media stories. The Australian government's anti-competition watchdog, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, is currently drafting a bill that would require Facebook to pay media companies for any of their content that appears on Facebook. The law would require something similar of Google, which is as the New York Times explains, could lead to a rise in misinformation, as it could arguable make reliable news sources less easy to find.
Australian authorities say they are acting in the best interests of the country, and favoring Australian media interests who are struggling amid sinking ad sales. But Facebook and Google say that such a move would make it impossible for them to keep their services free to consumers.