Trending is the term for the topics that are currently most popular on social media. Most Twitter users will be familiar with the ‘trending’ feature, as well as a number of other sites which display popular subjects such as Google, Facebook and YouTube. Trends are often caused by a significant spike in post frequency and may be triggered by popular news events, the death of celebrities or the latest meme. It is also possible to manufacture a trending topic by targeting specific hashtags and using them in a coordinated manner.
Twitter’s ‘trending’ lists are compiled by tracking the most common subjects that appear on the site and calculating how quickly posts about those subjects rise in frequency. Trending lists are then displayed to Twitter users in a sidebar on their dashboard or, for desktop users, within the ‘For You’ section of their Twitter account. Users can choose to see trends based on their location or the wider world and can change their preferences on Twitter’s website.
Facebook and Google both provide a similar service, showing their ‘trending’ topics in sidebars on their websites. In both cases, the trending topics are determined by a percentage of searches in a specific time period and geographic region. The trending topics that are displayed to users will be a combination of those searches and those posted by other Facebook or Google users on their accounts.
In recent years, it has become increasingly easy for small groups of people to hijack Twitter’s trending topics. By coordinating swells of activity around targeted hashtags, they can ensure that certain topics are shown to the majority of Twitter users, skewing the political debate or generating unwanted news coverage. This has been seen in the case of fake Pizzagate conspiracy theories, a campaign to ruin the life of a celebrity over a joke and coordinated attacks on marginalised communities on Twitter.
While it is not possible to stop the ability to create artificial trends, it is possible to minimise their impact. Firstly, it is recommended that businesses use unique and targeted hashtags to avoid confusion with other campaigns. This can be done by creating a new hashtag for the purpose of a campaign, or modifying an existing one with relevant keywords. It is also important to consider the timing of a trending attempt, as trends can be affected by the relative popularity of competing hashtags, major landmark occasions or even TV shows and sporting events.
Despite the best efforts of Twitter engineers, it is still possible to manipulate Trending lists in order to generate attention for an agenda. It is hoped that as the platform becomes more mature, this will be less of a problem in the future.