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Tyranny of the Trending

When popularity is the metric, propaganda rises to the top

Words Rome Jorge

“Trending topics”—that’s how social media sites such as Facebook determine what is on each user’s newsfeed. “Trending shows you a list of topics and hashtags that have recently spiked in popularity on Facebook,” explains the site.


With nearly everyone creating content, from mainstream news and entertainment corporations to pundit bloggers and YouTube stars, there is too much content.

Those who curate people’s experiences are the kingmakers in the Age of Information Overload. With ever-increasing content, curatorship needs to be automated with algorithms.

The Age of Information Overload—because of algorithms that curate based on what’s trending—has become the Post Truth Era where lies and liars reign.

Algorithms determined what appeared on peoples’ news feeds by measuring popularity through the number of likes and shares of a post or link. But these did not determine the quality or accuracy of content. These allowed the proliferation of trending sites that spread fake news with clickbait headlines and sensationalist content.

Algorithms on social media also determined what appeared on peoples’ news feeds by simply tracking their interests based on previous browsing habits. These reinforce prejudices by simply giving people what they wanted to hear, read, and see, instead of challenging them with new facts, fresh insights, and divergent opinions.

Bots and paid trolls gave false impressions of popularity and fooled algorithms into prioritizing them.

The system that allowed users to report bigotry, racism, and hoaxes, was misused by trolls to shut down the pages of their critics and opponents.

Self-taught bloggers, self-appointed citizen journalists, and anonymous influencers sometimes did not distinguish between opinion and factual news, mislabel their propaganda as parody, confuse objective reviews with paid endorsements. Lacking the mentorship, oversight, and accountability of traditional journalism, these bloggers and citizen journalists are even more vulnerable to corruption and bias.


Social media sites that favor trending topics naturally favor populist leaders. In, 2013, Vladimir Putin, populist Russian president and former KGB espionage officer, stated his objective to “break the Anglo-Saxon monopoly on the global information streams” in an interview with the government-funded RT (Russia Today) television network. The rise of social media with trending topics finally enabled Putin’s stated goal.

According to a study by the Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel based on a survey conducted January to February 2016, 62% in the United States get their news from social media. Facebook, the largest social media service with 1.79 billion monthly active users globally as of the third quarter of 2016, is the primary source of news for 66% of its users.

In December 2015, New Yorker journalist Adrian Chen, who had been investigating troll farms in Saint Petersburg that had been sowing conflict and confusion within the Russian anti-government protest community since 2014, noticed that these same Russian trolls began posing as Americans supporting Donald Trump, populist conservative presidential candidate for the 2016 US elections.

On November 8, Trump won the US presidential elections.

On December 9, the Central Intelligence Agency told US legislators that Russia conducted operations during the 2016 U.S. election to assist Donald Trump in winning the presidency, having identified specific individuals responsible.“It is the assessment of the intelligence community that Russia’s goal here was to favor one candidate over the other, to help Trump get elected.”


On November 19, 2016, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg declared, “We take misinformation seriously. We know people want accurate information. We’ve been working on this problem for a long time and we take this responsibility seriously.” noting that Facebook has “relied on our community to help us understand what is fake and what is not,” he added, “Similar to clickbait, spam and scams, we penalize [misinformation] in News Feed so it’s much less likely to spread.”

On December 15, 2016, Facebook announced that if enough users report a site as fake news, it will alert respected third-party fact checkers ABC News, Associated Press,,, and

These solutions still rely on people volunteering to flag down posts and then fact check them, unlike the algorithms designed to automate curation of web experiences. How they will compete with armies of paid trolls and bots remains to be seen.

On February 7, 2017, Syrian refugee Anas Modamani sued Facebook for spreading fake news that used a selfie he had taken with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and falsely claimeing he was a terrorist. Facebook’s lawyers have argued that it was the individuals who had posted the images not Facebook that should be held responsible for defamation.


Artwork Danielle Chuatico

Partner with adobo Magazine

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