Ellie Kemper And Why Twitter's Trending Topics Are Toxic

A Twitter trending topic for more than 24 hours this week was about tweeted outrage at actress Ellie Kemper of The Office and Unbreaka...


A Twitter trending topic for more than 24 hours this week was about tweeted outrage at actress Ellie Kemper of The Office and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. The trend provoked its own backlash, for its description and promotion.

A trending topic on Twitter is a subject or phrase about which a large number of people are tweeting. The exact process that sorts through popular subject matter, determines what is “trending,” and then displays it in your app or browser as a clickable link isn’t transparent, but broadly is understood as the result of both algorithmic and human decision-making.

In some cases, those trends are accompanied by text that is, theoretically, explanatory. Twitter has documentation online that outlines, briefly, what it’s all about.

“Adding more context to trends” is the header on a Twitter blog entry from November of last year, which says that users will begin to see ” brief descriptions” designed to “help add context to the trend.”

“Trends show what everyone is talking about right now,” the article explains. “But too often, we look at one word or phrase trending on Twitter and ask, ‘why is this trending?””

If the explanations are designed to help alleviate such confusion, one might think that when a celebrity’s name is trending, to pick an example, there might be messages like “Celebrating a birthday today” or “did not die last night” so as to prevent 4,000 tweets consisting of this gif.

But not really, no. Instead, the “context” is often added to what would be considered political or cultural hot-button issues. In those cases, it would require extra care to provide the impartiality that the Twitter documentation repeatedly references and cites as a guiding principle. The curation policy, which covers “context” on trends as well as Twitter “Moments”, lists “impartiality” as the very first item.

“We will use data-driven decision making when choosing Tweets around controversial topics, and highlight the Tweets already receiving the most engagement on Twitter,” explains Twitter’s curation policy. “On topics which reflect public debate, we will select Tweets that represent many sides of the conversation, where feasible.”

“Twitter curators should not advance their own viewpoints, but rather reflect the discussion as it appears on our platform,” it reads.

In practice, it can sometimes mean selecting a trending topic and then adding context that, as promised, adds information without staking out territory. This morning’s trending topic about emails obtained by Buzzfeed from Dr. Anthony Fauci is one such example.

Notice how it doesn’t reveal much, except for the reason that the topic is in the news.

For other, more Republican figures, the result can be somewhat different.

In the case of Ellie Kemper — who is not political and almost certainly not Republican — both the context added to the trending topic description, and the fact of the topic making the top of the list, were enough to make a lot of people object to the process.


Naturally the trend spread to blog posts and articles.

It was an online sensation. And sensationalized. And brutal. And (contain your shock) lacking context.

“Smear” is a word one could use here. Not a smear against an organization with an obviously racist past. A smear against a teenager crowned at an event with an accompanying parade held every year in St. Louis to much local fanfare, one which had been racially integrated years before that teen was born. That is context.

Not for nothing, but wasn’t it very recently that journalists and progressives were outraged at the Associated Press over firing a reporter for controversial tweets sent in youth?

But the merits of the story as news, or even as mean gossip, aren’t really the issue when it comes to the Twitter trending topics. As Alex Griswold said, when you click through to the trending topic you find thousands of borderline libelous statements. It is those tweets that make up the bulk of a trending topic. Not the verified users going by their real names, but the thousands of anonymous users sharing their thoughts.

That’s the design and intent of Twitter, in its rawest and earliest sense. The unfiltered mass expression of the human condition, to aggrandize it somewhat. And listen, I never said it’s always wrong.

Nevertheless, when you have a computer program sorting what’s “hot” from thousands of people repeating something online spontaneously or by design, you don’t always get the best of the best. You do get a lot of QAnon or #ClintonBodyCount tweets.

Twitter has over time taken great pains to position itself as overseer of mass expression. Curation as cure. To clean up hate and disinformation. And, as they claim in their many explanations of that curation, to add “context.”

Here are some examples of that context.


It can be sarcastic.

It can even be racist.

Remember, despite obvious obfuscation by some, a few hand-selected blue checks do not a trend make. It is the massive number of tweets that make a topic popular, and the algorithm — with some unknown degree of human oversight or participation, that puts that topic up in the top of the list.

And when it comes to adding context, it is at least as often, if not more often, that the opposite is achieved.

That is not context. If anything it’s misleading.

And it can be even worse than that.

That trending topic description about Republican Rep. María Elvira Salazar was simply wrong. As CNN noted later in a fact-check, “Salazar did not take credit for any part of the American Rescue Plan.”

Hand-selected. Curated. False.

“We aim to uphold high standards of accuracy, impartiality and fairness in our curation,” Twitter says of their various curation efforts, to include the contextualized and mysteriously monitored trending topics.

In practice, the impartiality is rare, the fairness is rarer, and the accuracy, which should be as close to 100% as possible, can seem like an afterthought.

It is not me or Josh Hawley or Elizabeth Warren or anyone else that put Twitter in the business of deciding to allow certain racism to remain on the platform, certain presidents to not remain, or certain presidential offspring to be protected to the point of suspending entire newspapers. It’s not any of us who told Twitter they should decide what is and is not scientifically sound information about Covid, or to decide what is and is not the best takeaway from thousands of tweets accusing an actor of being a “KKK Queen.”

Twitter decided to do that. It seems like expecting them to live up to the standards they set forth for this task they set themselves to isn’t so very much to expect.

There is a tendency in politics to treat everything as a big deal until the other side treats it a big deal, and to then switch gears and mock it as trivial. In that regard I expect that some people who read this will say how silly it is that conservatives get upset about trivial matters like trending topics.

But it is Twitter, and likewise other tech companies like Google and Facebook, who have made it clear over and over and over through policies and speeches and Capitol Hill testimony that the information presented on their platforms, and the way it is presented, is in fact a pretty big deal.

Considering that the claimed rationale behind these sites taking on these tasks of moderation and context is that a societal responsibility to the truth, then demanding they uphold those standards should be seen as equally an appeal on behalf of the good of society.

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.



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