Twitter’s Trending Algorithm Compromised For Years
According to a new study, there is a flaw in Twitter's trending algorithm that leaves the website vulnerable to astroturfing attempts.
The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) discovered that when calculating which keywords should trend, the social network ignores whether a tweet has been removed.
Consequently, hackers may manipulate Twitter trends by artificially pushing subjects up the list and then erasing proof of the tampering.
This new type of attack is dubbed "ephemeral astroturfing" by the researchers. According to them, a particular term or subject is deliberately pushed to look popular via coordinated and inauthentic activity, which is later eliminated as part of the attack.
Trending topics on Twitter are determined by an algorithm that detects popular topics at that time. Because the process creates a lot of power and possible cash, it is a tempting target for attackers looking to control consumers.
They can use ephemeral astroturfing to amplify their messaging by taking advantage of the Twitter trends algorithm's architecture. According to the research paper, Trends are updated every five minutes, using tweets that were published during a certain time span as input. Despite the necessity of maintaining the integrity of the trend list, the algorithm does not verify whether the tweets are still present or have been removed.
To assess the effects of ephemeral astroturfing, the researchers looked at both Turkish local and worldwide Twitter trends.
They discovered that these attacks contributed for at least 47% of local trends in Turkey and 20% of the top ten worldwide trends they studied.
To create the phony trends, the attackers used bots and hacked accounts, which included phishing applications, misinformation campaigns, hate speech, and even marriage proposals.
#SuriyelilerDefolsun (“Syrians Get Out”) was one of the faked hashtags that were fraudulently pushed to Trends.
In a statement, research co-author Rebekah Overdorf stated, "This was then taken up by various news sources, other social media platforms, and in academic articles." “In truth, it was entirely made up.”
The team claims to have alerted Twitter twice about the problem. Although the firm has admitted that the attacks do exist, the researchers claim that the problem has yet to be resolved.
“We know that Twitter trends garner attention,” said Overdorf, “so this manipulation has severe implications. Broader media outlets report on trends, which are utilized as a proxy for what people are talking about, but regrettably, it is a distorted proxy, distorting the public impression of what discussions are truly taking place.”
Twitter has been contacted but is still yet to provide their statement. With such an issue taking place, the company will undoubtedly be busier more so than ever.