Earlier this month, Twitter announced it would restrict free access to its API – the programming interface that allows third-party developers to interact with Twitter. While this decision certainly affects indie developers and startups that create tools to make the platform fun and safe, it also creates a problem for students and scholars who use Twitter for research on different topics.
Last week, the company run by Elon Musk sent an email to the developers where he mention that the basic tier to access Twitter’s API – which will cost $100 per month for “low-level usage” – will replace legacy access tiers like Essential, Elevated, and Academic Research. At the moment, there is almost no information on what this $100 per month allows the developers to do. According to Platformer Casey Newton, low-level enterprise API access could cost $42,000 per month.
Affordability for researchers
For many in the search community, spending hundreds or thousands of dollars each month may not be viable.
“Earlier this week, a Hate Lab The undergraduate thesis student had to change the design of his thesis to not collect data from Twitter because he did not have the funds to pay for it. His experience will be shared by thousands of people across the country and millions around the world. This is truly incredibly disruptive and will have a significant impact on the research ecosystem dependent on this data, as Twitter’s pipeline of researchers, from undergraduate to professional, has been disrupted by this change,” said Professor Matthew Williams. from HateLab, part of Cardiff University’s Social Data Science. online hate speech lab and studies.
Ironically, HateLab is listed as a success story on the Twitter Developer Portal to use research for good. He has published several research articles on hate speech on the platform. The agency uses the academic research API of the social network. But it might cease to exist in the new version.
Twitter also didn’t consider that $100 a month for basic access might be a lot for researchers based in developing countries.
“The decision to end free access to the Twitter API will have a significant impact on researchers studying hate speech online, especially independent researchers and those in developing countries. Its impact will be deeply felt in India, where hate speech is proliferating on Twitter at a very alarming rate. Paying $100 per month and $1,200 per year is a big financial burden for them,” said Raqib Hameed Naik, founder of Hindutva Watch, an India-based research organization.
The process is not even clear to institutions that might be willing to spend the money. Rebekah Tromble, director of the Institute for Data, Democracy and Policy, said that when they tried to complete the corporate-level access form, they were redirected to the research program university. She also mentioned that the person they used to contact on Twitter no longer works at the company.
Impact of the discontinuation of the Search API
Independent research has been a key factor in making Twitter more useful and less toxic. The company has posted several projects working in areas such as healthcare, online hate speech and climate change using data from Twitter.
Earlier this year, the company launched the Twitter Moderation Research Consortium (TMRC), inviting members from academia, civil society, non-governmental organizations and journalism to study the platform’s governance issues. But since Musk took over, the program has stalled and the employees who worked there have left.
Tesla’s CEO himself used data from Botometer, a tool to measure bot followers on Twitter accounts, during the public spats that led to the company’s acquisition. The tool was created by the Indiana University Social Media Observatory. But the future of the tool could be compromised by the announcement of the new API.
Many research projects consider a large number of tweets. They send hundreds of queries to the platform to study different topics. Twitter has not released any details regarding what might be offered in the $100 per month tier. But that probably won’t be enough for most projects. For reference, in academic research, the Twitter API previously offered access to 10 million tweets per month and 50 requests every 15 minutes per app.
Kaicheng Yang, one of the researchers who worked on Botometer, expressed concern over Twitter’s decision to shut down free API access for academics.
Joshua Tucker, co-director of the NYU Center for Social Media and Politics, recently published an article on Russian disinformation campaigns on Twitter during the 2016 US presidential election campaign. He said the campaign studied data from several thousand tweets, so if the social network charges academics for this data, it would be difficult to conduct large-scale research.
“This [move by Twitter] is simply a step in the wrong direction. We’re at a time of major global legislative efforts to make data easier to access for outside researchers, and this move by Twitter will only make it more difficult for outside researchers to access data. This in turn means more blind spots on the impact of platforms on society for policy makers, the press, civil society and the business community,” he said.
Over the past few days, a lot researchers pointed out that free access to the Twitter API also helps respond to crises during natural disasters like the recent devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria. Earlier this month, a group of independent researchers wrote an open letter to Twitter asking the platform to keep free API access open.
“Twitter’s new CEO, Elon Musk, has promised to make the platform more transparent and reduce the prevalence of spam and manipulative accounts. We welcome and support these priorities,” the letter reads.
“In fact, the independent research community has developed many of the most advanced techniques used to manage bots. API access provided an essential resource for this work. Twitter’s new data access barriers will reduce the very transparency the platform and our societies desperately need.
Without independent research, the company could become oblivious to misinformation and hate speech issues on the platform. The EU has already issued a “yellow card” to the company for missing data in its disinformation report. Several companies have signed the code of practice, which among other things promises to provide data to researchers.
While breaking the search code has no legal ramifications, it could carry more weight from next year when the Digital Services Act (DSA) comes into effect. Separately, the bloc’s high commissioner, Josep Borrell, criticized Twitter for restricting access to its platform by making its API chargeable. The ramifications of this change are wider than expected – and a quick gain in revenue could turn into a bigger problem in the long run.
You can reach this reporter on Signal and WhatsApp at +91 816-951-8403 or firstname.lastname@example.org via email.
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