It’s easy to misconstrue trending topics on Twitter

July 29, 2011

In the confusion following the attacks in Norway on July 22, pundits sought someone to blame for the growing death toll. Suspicions quickly turned to Islamic extremists.

Even after the attacker turned out to be the opposite — a Norwegian man spouting Christian beliefs — some news organizations continued to question whether al-Qaeda deserved the blame.

On Saturday, a quick scan of the trending topics on Twitter echoed this notion. Trending topics are words or phrases shared at the fastest rate on the social media site. Many are denoted by a hashtag, a Twitter designation that emphasizes a word or phrase. On Saturday, one of the top trending hashtags worldwide was #BlameTheMuslims.

While many people reacted vehemently to the bigotry they perceived in the trend, their response was as quick to judgment as the original supposition that the killer in Norway followed Islam. People race to keep pace with the spread of misinformation online, and Twitter only exacerbates the problem with its rapid-fire game of telephone.

Though Twitter, with a reported 200 million users, is negligible in size compared with behemoths such as Facebook, its users tend to be noisemakers online: bloggers, journalists, media personalities. What trends on Twitter often makes its way to non-users.


(MICHAEL HIRSHON /FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

More and more, though, ironic joke slogans have infiltrated the topics, and many can be easily misconstrued. Sanum Ghafoor, who goes by the Twitter name Strange Sanum, watched the coverage of the Norwegian attacks on the British news channel Sky TV. When the police arrested Anders Behring Breivik, a tall, blond Norwegian, Ghafoor, a 19-year-old Muslim college student, expected the pundits to apologize for suspecting a Muslim.

Instead, she said, the newscaster suggested, “Perhaps he is a Muslim convert.” She took to Twitter and started venting her frustration to her 1,500 followers with her preferred communication style: humor.

“Couldn’t find your keys this morning? Blame the Muslims. Tripped on your way to work? Blame the Muslims,” she wrote.

A few of her Twitter friends picked it up and added the hashtag. Ghafoor assumed it would stay a small joke among them. Twitter, however, is a megaphone. By the next morning, the hashtag started trending in London, then all over England and soon around the world. Most expressed disgust at what they thought was bigotry, spreading the hashtag further. The original tweets were lost in an avalanche of complaints.

Ghafoor is not the first to fall into this type of Twitter trap. In February, a Delaware man who goes by the name Nerd at Cool Table posted a photo of what he thought was negligent parenting: a young child asleep in the bottom of the stroller, not in the seat. He added “RIP Black Folks” to the photo link. He saw it as an educational jab at his own race, a la Bill Cosby entreating young black men to pull up their pants.

Within hours, a horrified group petitioned Twitter to remove what they saw as a racist trend.

Twitter has come under fire for trending topics before, both for what makes the list of trends — and for what does not. Users complained when WikiLeaks released a cache of documents — a constant topic of conversation on the site — but still eluded a top trending status.

Twitter released one of its few comments on the subject, in a blog post saying that rather than a constant and sustained conversation, a large burst of energy fuels the list. The company likely refrains from offering up much insight into how a topic rises to the top of the pile, to prevent spammers from learning how to trick the popular feature. Still, since people can’t often find the original tweet, the trends can be misconstrued.

Ghafoor has a suggestion for Twitter: Create a sarcasm font.

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