Social media, Twitter

Half of trending topics on Twitter are fake, study says

At least 47% of the trending topics on Twitter in Turkey, and 20% of those that appear as a global trend, are artificially generated by bots.

Almost half of the trending topics on Twitter related to Turkey are false, and the same happens with 20% of the global trends that the famous social network shows worldwide, according to a recent study carried out in Switzerland by a group of researchers.

The study, in which Tuğrulcan Elmas, a Turkish citizen graduated from Bilkent University in Ankara who is carrying out a doctorate on manipulation in social media, has participated as co-author, reveals that at least 47% of the trending topics that Twitter shows for Turkey are actually fake and are artificially generated by bots using compromised or fake accounts.

Since 2015, rapid attacks of astroturfing, a marketing and public relations technique that uses fake profiles on networks to support a person or brand and attack rivals, have skyrocketed on Twitter; this technique uses automatic programs (bots) that, through thousands of artificial accounts on the social network, drive certain terms to trending positions on Twitter.

For this type of attack, bots use thousands of fake profiles to generate messages with a certain hashtag that they want to be trending, and which are then quickly deleted to avoid being tracked; the problem is that when it comes to establishing trends or trending topics, Twitter does not take into account whether the message has been deleted or not, so it validates those messages.

“If trending topics are not real, users will stop trusting Twitter”

This makes Twitter, a social network that can have enormous influence among public opinion, especially vulnerable to attacks by bots and techniques such as astroturfing, which “undermines the integrity of this social network,” Elmas said in statements to the Turkish news agency Anatolia. “If trending topics do not show what is actually trending, users will lose trust in this mechanism, and perhaps the entire platform,” warned Elmas, a doctoral student at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne.

Although users of social media are exposed to all kinds of deceptive actions and methods to create false trends and opinions and to manipulate them, they are not the only ones; other companies, and even media or politicians, often fall into the trap and comment on these false trending topics, or join them thinking that they respond to a real interest of the millions of Twitter users.

Sometimes, even academic studies carried out by experts succumb to this type of hoax with fake trending topics on Twitter, thinking that they are an expression of popular opinion, thus ignoring that they can be easily manipulated. “An example is (the trending topic) #SuriyelilerDefolsun (#SyriansMustLeave), which was cited in at least 5 academic studies… But all of them attributed the source of that trend to users on social media, without taking into account the activity of bots,” warns Elmas.