Cheap, Convenient, and Much Too Easy: Fabricated Twitter Trends

July 1, 2021

Here is some news out of Turkey that perked our ears. News EPFL reports, “Mass Scale Manipulation of Twitter Trends Discovered.” Is Turkey an outlier when it comes to digital baloney? Perhaps a little, for now, but this problem recently uncovered by researchers appears to occur the world over.

Twitter Trends supposedly uses an algorithm to calculate the most popular topics at any given moment then deliver this information to its users. However, these calculations can be manipulated. Writer Tanya Petersen explains:

“Now, new EPFL research focused on Turkey, from the Distributed Information Systems Laboratory, part of the School of Computer and Communication Sciences has 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. ‘We found that attackers employ both fake and compromised accounts, which are the accounts of regular people with stolen credentials, or who installed a malicious app on their phones. Generally, they are not aware that their account is being used as a bot to manipulate trending topics, sometimes they are but don’t know what to do about it and in both cases they keep using Twitter,’ said Tu?rulcan Elmas, one of the authors of the research, accepted by the IEEE European Symposium of Security and Privacy 2021, a top cybersecurity conference. ‘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.’”

Those bot-created trends cover topics from gambling promotions to disinformation campaigns to hate speech against vulnerable populations. Another of the paper’s co-authors, Rebekah Overdorf, points out fake Twitter trends are magnified by media outlets, which regularly seize on them as examples of what people are talking about. Well if they weren’t before, they are now. Effective. When contacted by researchers, Twitter acknowledged the vulnerability but showed no interest in doing anything about it. We are sensing a (real) trend here.

Cynthia Murrell, July 1, 2021

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