February 13, Twitter is expected to stop freely accessing its API, or Application Programming Interface, the server-side access that allows people to create bots to automatically post and reply to tweets on the site. Elon Musk, who took over Twitter last October, has long said he wants to purge the platform of bots and said charging a minimum of $100 a month for API access “clean things up a lot.”
But by disabling free access to its API, Twitter will also deprive many researchers of access to its data, depriving them of the ability to analyze the spread of disinformation and hate speech on social networks.
In the last few weeks alone, research scientists have used free API access to track all activity on the platform for 24 hours, map how the insurgents who tried to overthrow the US government on January 6, 2021 coordinated their actions on the platform – and even estimate the proportion of users who are bots on the platform. This kind of research will now become much more difficult.
“The impact is potentially devastating,” says David Leiser, a sociologist at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. “Twitter has been the most common source of data to study the information ecosystem, especially disinformation, to understand what content is leaking and why.”
Twitter’s policy change ended years of relative transparency, but studying social media platforms and their impact on society has always been a difficult task, according to Philipp Lorenz-Shprin, a research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin. The problem has always been related to the curious position that social platforms occupy in society: they are quasi-public enterprises – a “de facto town square” that Musk shouted about when he first applied to buy the platform, but are privately owned.
This situation makes it impossible for social networks to provide researchers with access to their data due to the associated risks. If a scientist uses free access to the platform’s API to identify a serious issue with state-sponsored disinformation or content moderation issues that allow hate speech to circulate unhindered, it could be a headache for the site. As a result, many social media platforms choose to simply block or restrict researchers from analyzing their platforms, or charge unreasonably high prices for API access. This addiction is “an unbearable situation for independent research,” says Lorenz-Sprin.
facebook limited access to your API in 2018, after it was discovered that consulting firm Cambridge Analytica had accessed data from millions of users for use in targeted political ads.
The simplest $100/month Twitter API access plan will be out of reach for many researchers.
“At best, this is a huge misunderstanding of how academic funding works,” says Jeremy Blackburn, an assistant professor at Binghamton University in New York and a member of the iDRAMA Lab, which analyzes hate speech on social media. “At its worst, it’s an attempt to swindle more taxpayer money through the federal financial agencies, as he did with his other companies.”