Researchers are concerned about Twitter’s recent announcement that it will restrict access to its data and charge for it.
For years, social media platforms have made their data available to independent researchers to investigate online trolling, disinformation spreading, and other malicious activity on their platforms.
Studies conducted with the aid of this information have been crucial in understanding the strategies used by scammers, foreign influence operations, and other nefarious actors who aim to manipulate social media.
Twitter’s announcement has faced opposition from the research community, who believe the move could limit its ability to conduct important research on the negative impact of social media on society.
Researchers argue that charging for access to data limits the number of people who can conduct research and the scope of research that can be conducted.
In turn, this might restrict the knowledge that can be gleaned about the detrimental effects of social media, which is crucial for policymakers to address.
The move to limit and charge access to data also calls into question the role of social media platforms in making data available to the research community.
Although these platforms have always been for-profit entities, they have also been viewed as public goods, responsible for providing information that can be used for the public good.
It has become more challenging for researchers to conduct their work as a result of Twitter’s decision to limit access to its data and charge for it.
A public backlash has resulted from Twitter’s recent plan to replace free access to its application programming interface (API) with paid access.
The move was announced last week and intended to start on February 13th, with the basic access package starting at $100 a month for a “low level of API usage”.
This change has been met with opposition from the research community and civil society organizations, who rely on free access to the API for their work. George Washington University’s Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics director, Rebekah Tromble, has stated that the impact of this change on research and transparency would be “profound.”
She argues that the move would have devastating consequences for accountability and the public good.
The plan has highlighted the tension between Twitter’s new owner, Elon Musk, and his vow to bolster transparency on the platform, and the need to increase revenue through subscription products.
The decision to end free access to the API and charge for it has faced criticism, especially in light of an advertiser revolt. The move has been seen as a step back from Twitter’s previous position as an industry leader in transparency.
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Musk has framed the API restrictions as part of his effort to combat the problem of spammy, automated accounts.
He has claimed that the data interface is being “abused badly” by bot scammers and opinion manipulators, who take advantage of the lack of verification process or cost.
However, the proposed solution of charging for API access has also been met with opposition from third-party software developers who use the API for “good” Twitter bots. This move could harm the work of these developers, who use the API to formulate automated tweets.
Two days after the initial announcement, Musk appeared to soften his stance, but Tromble has argued that this concession only addressed the concerns of developers and not those of researchers who utilize the API to collect and analyze large amounts of platform data.
Interestingly, Elon Musk’s allegations about the prevalence of bots on Twitter were a central part of his failed attempt to withdraw from buying Twitter last year. However, his changes to the API might now make it more difficult to study bot behavior on the platform.
The controversy surrounding the API restrictions highlights the complex issue of balancing the need to stamp out malicious bots while also preserving the ability of researchers and developers to use the platform in beneficial ways.
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One of the third-party applications that will be affected by the change is Botometer, a tool developed by researchers at Indiana University. Botometer is widely used by researchers to study online manipulation and to identify bots on social media platforms.
Kaicheng Yang, one of the creators of Botometer, has expressed concern about the impact of Twitter’s API changes.
He stated that the changes “would definitely make my work harder” and increase the project’s costs. He added that users could be required to shoulder the costs of Botometer’s use of Twitter’s API, which could make the tool less accessible to the general public.
Additionally, Yang said that the paid API would make it difficult to teach students about how to use tools like Botometer to study social media and understand online manipulation.
He also noted that smaller researchers, particularly in developing countries, may possibly not be able to afford the new API, thereby limiting the potential impact of their work.
Rep. Lori Trahan, a Massachusetts Democrat, has criticized the move and called it “the latest in a series of bad moves from Twitter under Elon Musk’s leadership.”
Policymakers have been calling for expanding researcher access to social media data to hold platforms accountable. Twitter’s API plans, however, go against this trend and are seen as a setback for transparency and accountability.
The recent reports to the European Union are seen as an important marker for compliance with the Code of Practice on Disinformation, a self-regulatory set of commitments that can reduce a tech company’s liability under the Digital Services Act.
Violations of the act can result in fines of up to 6% of a company’s global annual revenue, which will be enforced starting in 2024.