Twitter curbs researcher access, sparking backlash in Washington

Reuters/file photo
A view of the Twitter logo at its corporate headquarters in San Francisco

Twitter’s decision to restrict access to a key tool used to study the platform is sparking backlash from researchers and Democratic lawmakers, who say the move undercuts owner Elon Musk’s pledges to boost transparency at the social network.

On Thursday, Twitter announced that it will shutter the ability to freely access its API, or application programming interface – software tools that allow outside researchers and developers to collect and analyze data from a site. Instead, Twitter’s development team tweeted, the company will begin charging for it, without specifying how much.

The decision will likely price out academics and journalists looking into Twitter’s practices and the spread of harmful content on the platform, Democratic lawmakers said.

“This move will make it more difficult for researchers to access the information necessary to understand harms on Twitter, including misinformation, foreign influence operations and more,” said Rep. Lori Trahan (D-Mass.), who led a letter last year calling on Musk to pledge to keep Twitter data open to researchers, as we reported.

“We need more information, not less, about how social media companies like Twitter operate, and I’m concerned that this decision will cut down on important research in the public interest,” said Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), who has pushed for greater platform transparency.

Musk tweeted last month that “Transparency builds trust,” and he has repeatedly said he is making product changes to make the Twitter platform less opaque.

But many of his early moves have actually set back the company’s transparency work, according to a former employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal company matters.

In addition to increasing prices for the API, Twitter has not yet released a transparency report under Musk’s leadership. Typically the reports are released twice a year and explain how Twitter is enforcing its rules and taking down content. The report should have been completed by the end of January, according to the person.

Broad company layoffs have affected employees in policy positions who previously worked to make the platform more transparent, and work has also stalled on Twitter’s Moderation Research Consortium, which sought to expand research into state-backed attacks on Twitter. Reuters first reported the pause on the consortium.

Under Musk, Twitter has also suspended over a half dozen journalists, including our colleague Drew Harwell, over allegations they were posting “basically assassination coordinates” for him and his family. The Post has seen no evidence that any of the reporters did so.

The suspensions, according to Trahan, came the same day that the company had assured her staff that it would not retaliate against researchers or journalists posting criticisms of the site.

The API change is Musk’s latest effort to expand how much the platform is monetized.

Sol Messing, a research associate professor at New York University who recently left Twitter’s data science team, said that it’s valid for the company to try to raise revenue and cut costs, but that far too often, “academic research gets caught up in the crossfire.”

“You can really easily become collateral damage when platforms make these changes that have just nothing to do with research,” he said in an interview. An email to Twitter’s communications team, which was gutted last year, was not returned. Musk did not return a request for comment.

The sudden price hike could be especially restrictive for students and researchers unaffiliated with well-funded universities or think tanks, particularly outside the United States, he said.

“Where you might need misinformation research the most, it could impact those areas disproportionately,” Messing said.

It could limit visibility into how Musk’s decision to lay off scores of content moderators in developing countries has impacted hate speech and harassment on the site, which has spiked in large foreign markets since the mogul’s takeover, as my colleagues reported.

Twitter’s shift is already hastening calls for action on Capitol Hill.

“This is a really good demonstration for exactly why we need regulatory action on researcher access to data,” Messing said.

Coons, who is leading bipartisan legislation to require tech companies to turn over more data to researchers, said that “we won’t be able to fully grasp the platform’s impact on society if Twitter restricts the data we need to understand it.”

The moves could also put Twitter in the crosshairs of European regulators, who last year passed sweeping new content regulations that include heightened transparency requirements.