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Saturday, April 13, 2024

Twitter’s API Crackdown Will Hit More Than Just Bots

On February 13, Twitter is expected to end free access to its API, or application programming interface, the backend access that lets people build bots to automatically post and respond to tweets on the site. Elon Musk, who took over Twitter in October last year, has long said he wants to scour the platform of bots, and has said that charging a minimum of $100 a month to access the API will “clean things up greatly.

But by cutting off free access to its API, Twitter will also prevent many researchers from accessing its data, stopping them from analyzing how misinformation and hate speech spreads on social media. 

In the past few weeks alone, academic researchers have used free API access to track all activity on the platform in a 24-hour periodmap how insurrectionists who tried to overthrow the US government on January 6, 2021 coordinated on the platform—and even estimate the proportion of users that are bots on the platform. This kind of research will now become much harder.

“The impact is potentially devastating,” says David Lazer, a computational social scientist at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. “Twitter had been the most common source of data for studying the information ecosystem, especially misinformation, to understand what content was flowing out there and why.”

Twitter’s change of policy brings to an end years of relative transparency, but studying social media platforms and their impact on society has always been tricky, according to Philipp Lorenz-Spreen, a research scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin.  The problem has always been centered around the curious position social platforms hold in society: They’re quasi-public utilities—the “de facto public town square” that Musk crowed about when he first launched his bid to buy the platform—but are privately owned.

Such a situation disincentivizes social networks from granting researchers access to their data, because of the risks involved. If an academic uses free access to a platform’s API to identify a massive issue with state-sponsored disinformation, or problems with content moderation that allow hate speech to fester unchecked, it could cause headaches for the site. As a result, many social media platforms choose to simply lock out or limit researchers from analyzing their platforms, or place unfeasibly large prices on getting API access. That dependence is an “intolerable situation for independent research,” says Lorenz-Spreen.

Facebook restricted access to its API in 2018, after it was found that the consultancy  Cambridge Analytica had accessed the data of millions of users to use for targeted political advertising.

The most basic plan for Twitter’s API access, at $100 per month, will be out of the reach of many researchers. 

“At best it’s an immense lack of understanding of how academic funding works,” says Jeremy Blackburn, assistant professor at Binghamton University in New York and a member of the iDRAMA Lab, which analyzes hate speech on social media. “At worst it’s an attempt to grift more taxpayer money via federal funding agencies like he’s done with his other companies.” 

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Neither Twitter’s press office, which is believed to no longer be staffed, nor Elon Musk responded to a request for comment.

Blackburn was unvarnished in his criticism of the policy change. “Thousands of researchers use Twitter data to study all sorts of phenomena, as well as in the classroom,” he says. “Asking for $100 a month from academics, a notoriously wealthy demographic, is sure to have the same effect on Twitter’s bottom line as [that of] charging $8 a month to get paid off of the crypto scam ads that show up under your tweet.”

Researchers say that cutting their access to the API could also undermine Musk’s attempt to rid Twitter of bots. 

“The research community has also been instrumental in developing tools that detect and help users address bots—the very thing Elon Musk has said he’s focused on,” says Rebekah Tromble, director of the Institute for Data, Democracy & Politics at George Washington University in Washington, DC.

“Unless Twitter and other companies develop sliding-scale pricing plans that include free options for those undertaking public-interest work, I’m afraid the future is bleak,” Tromble says. “A lot of what we have come to love about the internet has been created by scrappy people, working outside these companies, focused on helping others. Their work will disappear if this trend continues.”

Researchers in Europe may still be able to get access under the European Union’s Digital Services Act, which came into force in November 2022 and requires “very large online platforms” to give access to academic researchers for the purposes of understanding “systemic risks.”

Lorenz-Spreen says that Twitter’s decision highlights the need for policymakers to take a more active role in mandating transparency and accountability for social media platforms, which play an outsize role in shaping public discourse but are often allowed to set their own rules and regulations. 

“We cannot—and shouldn’t have done so far, probably—rely on benevolent platform owners and their terms of service to deal with all this,” he says. “We have a responsibility to do this research as the societal impact of social media around the world becomes increasingly apparent, and the public needs to redress the knowledge asymmetry toward big platforms.”

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