Twitter admits editing offensive Trending Topics, plans more

Today Twitter’s CEO said they may in the future “edit out any…clearly offensive [trending topics].” He also said “we edit out any [trending topics] with obscenities.” Thanks to @rachelsklar for finding this tweet and @AbigailCollazo for pointing it out to me:

This is major news from Twitter.

Probably they have not already begun removing “clearly offensive” trends because they are harder to identify than those with obscenities. After all, you can make a list of obscenities that are not allowed, but it’s harder to list topics, because topics can be presented from different perspectives (for/against/nuetral) and wordings can vary.

Dick’s choice of words is interesting too: “I’d like to see…” He doesn’t elaborate whether this means Twitter plans to, or why what he’d like to see hasn’t begun happening. Twitter could also allow users to choose to filter trending topics, as opposed to outright censorship, although this would mean a change to their infrastructure.

Why Twitter needs to clear up their policy, and fast

The problem is: If Twitter does what the CEO wants, where will they draw the line? It already seems inappropriate that Twitter has not taken a clearer approach, e.g.

One of the reasons this is such major news is that Twitter allows accounts where all their tweets are about clearly offensive topics. Twitter’s terms of service doesn’t allow child porn, but it does allow a lot else. Many people have been frustrated in Twitter’s unwillingness to remove offensive accounts, but Twitter has always come down on the side of free speech, and against censorship.

Clearly Mr. Costolo feels that allowing offensive accounts is one thing, but amplifying offensive topics is another.

Twitter shouldn’t have policies that are not publicly stated.

They at minimum need to change their public policy page on trending topics to reflect what they are actually doing, such as by publishing a list of obscenities that are removed from trending topics.

Prior to this admission from the CEO, all Twitter policies said about obscenities was:

  1. You may not use obscene or pornographic images in either your profile picture or user background.
  2. Twitter does remove obscene or pornographic images in either user profile pictures or user backgrounds.
Particularly since many people already believe Twitter censors some political and business trending topics sometimes (I don’t believe they censor), Twitter needs to clarify what they are doing.

Do you think Twitter manipulated a trending topic?

If you do, you need to at minimum read Twitter’s explanation of how topics trend, and check the volume of other trending tweets before and after the time you think one is being suppressed. If you don’t know how tweets trend, and you don’t know how to compare the volume of one versus another, they you are, by definition, ignorant. I don’t mean this as a criticism, but you can’t know nothing about trends and have no data and expect to be taken seriously when you say you think Twitter is manipulating trending topics.

On the other hand, Twitter does in a manner of speaking manipulate trending topics over time by changes to their algorithm. As Twitter once explained to Mashable:

“Our Trends list is designed to help people discover the ‘most breaking’ breaking news from across the world, in real-time. The list is generated by an algorithm that identifies topics that are being talked about more right now than they were previously.

“There’s a number of factors that may come into play when seemingly popular terms don’t make the Trends list. Sometimes topics that are popular don’t break into the Trends list because the current velocity of conversation (volume of Tweets at a given moment) isn’t greater than in previous hours and days. Sometimes topics that are genuinely popular simply aren’t widespread enough to make the list of top Trends. And, on occasion, topics just aren’t as popular as people believe.”

Don’t believe everything you read

“Blocked” Trending Topics

Again, topics do NOT trend only because people a lot of people are tweeting about them. They trend because new people recently began tweeting about a topic in sufficient volume. But volume of tweets alone isn’t enough.

The key word is “recently.”

Many topics trend on Twitter, then disappear, even though they become more popular later. But Twitter’s algorithm considers it “old news” once it has been trending for awhile. If it didn’t, the trending topics would be overwhelmed with things people are talking about all the time (such as Justin Bieber).

The exception is if new people begin tweeting a lot about something.

The key is that something has to be “new” to be considered “trending.” Either new people, or a new topic. Having the same people tweeting about the same things won’t make a new trending topic, or keep an existing one going.

So popularity isn’t enough. To trend, a topic must be new, or an older topic tweeted by people who haven’t tweeted about it before. Otherwise the algorithm won’t place it on the trending topics list.

Frustratingly, some news topics trend and then disappear, even though new and important things are happening. But if the same words are used in tweets, Twitter’s trending algorithm considers the topic to be getting old (despite whatever may be happening with it in the real world) and unless new people begin tweeting about it, or new words are used, it will fall off the trending list.


I regularly see people saying Twitter has done something wrong, censored something or someone they “shouldn’t have.” I used to get involved, but now I just wait a few days for the inevitable correction to appear.

Most of what I’ve read about Twitter suspensions are incorrect. Most commonly from people who were smart enough to file a ticket with Twitter requesting information on the suspension, but haven’t heard back right away and decided to write an angry blog post speculating on the situation. But now, with Twitter’s CEO admitting they have an unpublished policy to censor trending topics, and that they may do more, raises the question of what other unpublished policies they may have.

But regarding suspensions, though I’ve never experienced it myself, I know Del Harvey, head of Twitter’s Trust and Safety team, has a lot of compassion for folks who get suspended. If you did something wrong, @delbius is very forgiving. Once you understand the problem and promise not to violate Twitter’s policies again, your account is almost always unsuspended. Some folks have even been suspended and unsuspended more than once. As I say, @delbius is very forgiving :)

7 thoughts on “Twitter admits editing offensive Trending Topics, plans more

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