New EPFL research has found that nearly half local Twitter trending topics in Turkey are fake, a scale of manipulation previously unprecedented. It also proves for the 1st time that a lot of trends are created solely by bots thanks to a vulnerability in Twitter’s Trends algorithm.
Social media has become ubiquitous in our modern, daily lives. it’s changed the way that people interact, connecting us in previously unimaginable ways. Yet, where once our social media networks probably consisted of alittle circle of friends most of us are now a part of much larger communities which will influence what we read, do, and even think.
One influencing mechanism, for instance , is “Twitter Trends” The platform uses an algorithm to find out hashtag-driven topics that become popular at a given point in time, alerting twitter users to the top highest words, phrases, subjects and popular hashtags globally and locally.
Now, new EPFL research focused on Turkey, from the Distributed Information Systems Laboratory, a part of School of Computer & Communication Sciences has found a vulnerability within the algorithm that decides Twitter Trending Topics: it doesn’t take deletions under consideration . This enables attackers to push the trends they need to the top highest of Twitter Trends despite deleting their tweets which contain the candidate trend shortly afterwards.
“We found that attackers employ both fake and compromised accounts, which are the accounts of normal people with stolen credentials, or who installed a malicious app on their phones. Generally, they’re not aware that their account is getting used as a bot to control trending topics, sometimes they’re but do not know what to try to do about it and in both cases they keep using Twitter,” said Tuğrulcan Elmas, one among the authors of the research, accepted by the IEEE European Symposium of Security and Privacy 2021, a top cybersecurity conference.
“We found that 47% of local trends in Turkey and 20% of worldwide trends are fake, created from scratch by bots. Between June 2015 & September 2019, we uncovered 108,000 bot accounts involved, the most important bot dataset reported during a single paper. Our research is that the first to uncover the manipulation of Twitter Trends at this scale,” Elmas continued.
The fake trends discovered include phishing apps, gambling promotions, disinformation campaigns, political slogans, hate speech against vulnerable populations and even marriage proposals.
“This manipulation has serious implications because we all know that Twitter Trends get attention. Broader media outlets report on trends, which are used as a proxy for what people are talking about, but unfortunately, it is a manipulated proxy, distorting the general public view of what conversations are literally happening ,” said Rebekah Overdorf, another of the paper’s authors. “For example, one among the manipulated hashtags that we found that was pushed to Trends artificially was #SuriyelilerDefolsun, translated to ‘Syrians get out,’ and this was then picked up by several news reports, other social media platforms and in academic papers. actually , it had been completely fabricated,” Overdorf continued.
The researchers contacted Twitter twice, with the corporate acknowledging in both cases the vulnerability in its Trends algorithm. within the first case Twitter declined to form any changes, within the second case the corporate didn’t answer the researchers’ follow-up emails. “The problem has not been fixed and that we still see obvious spam trends occurring. It’s clear that until the vulnerability within the algorithm is corrected adversaries will still create fake trends with same attack methodology,” concluded Elmas.
The findings were reported on Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne.