The Twitter algorithm that selects trending topics has a vulnerability that makes it susceptible to being manipulated by hacker attacks. Specifically, the technique known as “astroturfing”, consisting of flooding the network with apparently spontaneous publications, is capable of confusing the algorithm so that it places certain terms in the trending topic.
Astroturfing consists of flooding the network with apparently spontaneous publications to confuse the Twitter algorithm
Researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne have reached these conclusions. According to their research, the algorithm of the social network is not able to distinguish between the tweets that have been deleted and those that have not when it comes to placing one or the other term as a trend.
For this reason, an organized group of attackers can very easily promote certain words to become trending topic. They then delete their messages so that there is no evidence of manipulation, but their slogan remains a trending topic. Researchers have dubbed these types of attacks “ephemeral astroturfing.”
The Twitter algorithm selects the trending topics looking for the most popular topics at a given time. It is a very influential mechanism with great visibility, which makes it a very attractive point of attack for those seeking to manipulate network users.
In addition, the design of the system that selects the trends of the moment makes things easy for them. The study explains that “the trends are updated every five minutes, taking as a reference the tweets that are published in that interval. However, the algorithm does not check if those tweets are still available or they have been erased ”.
To achieve their goal, attackers use stolen bots or profiles to create false trends. This technique, they detail in the article, has been used for very different purposes: scams, disinformation campaigns, hate speech and even marriage proposals.