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.