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Some topics may seem too strange for people to start talking about them all of a sudden. That’s when the idea of buying a hashtag (label) or a trenging topic (tendency) on the internet makes sense.
At the beginning of December, a phrase that would translate as “lamb on the grill at home” became the subject of the moment on Twitter in Saudi Arabia.
About 17,000 tweets mentioned the phrase and most promoted a single restaurant, phone number included.
But it turned out that there were not thousands of people writing about the meat products of that establishment, no matter how succulent their dishes might be.
The reality was that the hashtag “lamb grilled at home” was a clandestine advertising campaign executed successfully in the social network by a network of automatic accounts (bots or computer robots).
And it is not an exception .
A large number of artificially created trends tend to occupy the highest positions in the Twitter trending topics list in Saudi Arabia and in other countries.
They are promoted by mysterious companies that make money cheating the algorithm of the social network to create conversations that seem authentic and natural . Although they are, precisely, the opposite.
How do the “trending topics” work?
The list of trending topics on Twitter works as a real-time indicator that shows what people are talking about in the social network.
If you use Twitter from a desktop computer, you will see that this list is usually located in a prominent place on the side of the page.
If you access from the application for the cell phone, the list will be one of the first things you will see when you click on the magnifying glass icon.
The list shows what those current issues areall over the world, but there are also local lists that explain separately what is being talked about in different cities and countries. Users can easily change their preferences to check lists of other places.
What appears in them is governed by an algorithm that measures not only the popularity of the themes (based on the total number of tweets), but the speed at which they become trends; that is, how certain debates in the network emerge.
That’s why the names associated with breaking news or headlines of very popular websites usually get high on the list very quickly.
Some companies pay Twitter to appear on the list; they are called “promoted trends” and are clearly defined as advertising on the website.
But that is not the case with the artificially created hashtags and trends researched by the BBC.
What the BBC did in this investigation was how some companies in Saudi Arabia promise to create hashtags that reach high on the list of trending topics in exchange for relatively small sums of money.
And we saw how they achieve it successfully.
To increase the popularity of phrases and words that would otherwise go unnoticed, these companiesthey use networks of bots , automated accounts that are programmed to trigger a flow of messages in a certain moment.
The BBC contacted several companies that claim to be able to create hashtags and trends and finally managed to talk to the firm that created the label “lamb on the grill at home.”
After a series of negotiations through the WhatsApp messaging platform, we put the company to the test.
They charged us US $ 200 for creating a hashtag that said in Arabic “Felicidades Fahima” and that is included in the list of trending topics in Saudi Arabia.
The person behind the company promised that it could turn it into a nation-wide trend in the Persian Gulf .
The first attempt was aborted when, according to the representative of the company, due to the high traffic on Twitter due to the marriage of a famous person, they could not make the subject a trend on the first date chosen.
But days later, there was more luck. The hashtag slipped into the list of trending topics in the Saudi city of Jeddah, reaching sixth place.
The botnet (the network of computer robots) used by the company sent more than 600 messages with the label “Congratulations Fahima”.
Once the created hashtag reached the list of trending topics , many “real” Twitter users started using it. Some asked who Fahima was or said they were friends with her.
“I know Fahima!” One of them tweeted. “He just had quadruplets!”
The limitations of bots
However, computer robots are not infallible. The label did not reach the general list of trends in Saudi Arabia, as it had achieved that of the “lamb on the grill at home” campaign.
The claims of that company and others similar that can create hashtags that become a trend in the United Kingdom and other Western countries seem quite exaggerated.
Although the ability to make something become part of the list of trends in a country where Twitter is very popular is impressive. According to a 2014 survey, Twitter has about 2.4 million users and more than 40% of them are active.
A political weapon
The artificial hashtags that are part of advertising campaigns tend to be high on the list of trending topics in Saudi Arabia.
Most of them tend to have a commercial nature, but they have the potential to be used in political campaigns as a tool for manipulation , as explained to the BBC by Marc Owen Jones, professor of History of the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula at the University of Exeter , in the United Kingdom.
“I observed during the latest crisis between Saudi Arabia and Qatar that thousands of accounts were producing information that was false or programmatic,” says the professor.
“The interesting thing is how many of those accounts can manipulate what audiences around the world see, the more accounts you have talking about a particular topic, the easier it becomes for that topic to become a trend.”
“These bots make people believe that this is what other people are talking about,” he adds.
Twitter stated that it is aware of the problem and that it was committed to eliminate the computer robot networks of its system and to act against the people who try to manipulate it.
“Trying to filter trending topics is a practice as old as Twitter’s own tendencies,over the years we have invested a lot in combating spam and other automated attempts to manipulate trends,” the social network told the BBC. through a statement.
“We take active measures to protect ourselves against these deceptions, for example, we exclude automated tweets when calculating the issues that turn into trends.”
“It’s important to note that, as spammers(creators of spam ) change their tactics, we modify our technological tools to face this type of situation “.
Twitter says that since June 2017 it has detected about 130,000 accounts a daythat try to manipulate its list of trending topics .
The company says it is taking more steps to stop the manipulation, but declined to give more details on what actions it is taking because “telling more about it would only help the malicious.”