Researchers are trying to figure out how Twitter plans to end free data access
Is Social Media Harassment Changing? Studies of the Online Narratives of Elon Musk and the Case for a State-Insured Moderation Council
When billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk completed his purchase of Twitter and pledged that “the bird is freed” last week, Felix Ndahinda saw a threat rising on the horizon.
More than 250 million daily users are estimated by the site to be its goal; it has always claimed that it aims to be a public town square of communication. Abuse, misinformation and bots have been present at that scale, but the advantages of rapid, widespread communication to each other outweigh these problems for many researchers.
There is an open question about whether the change in policies on social media will have an effect on real-world behavior. A study of over 1200 US Republicans and Democrats on the social networking site found that exposure to accounts operated by the Russian Internet Research Agency had no effect on political attitudes. “In much of our research we’re measuring what kinds of narratives pick up and how they go viral,” says Stringhini. We can’t really tell if the online message is changing people’s behavior in a real world.
How the company will proceed is still uncertain. Musk has met with civil-rights leaders about his plan to put a moderation council in charge of establishing policies on hate speech and harassment. Users who had been banned before Musk’s takeover of the company would not be reinstated until a process had been set up for allowing them to do so, Musk has said.
Vince Musk is afraid of the Twitter era after his management of the Cardiff University Twitter site (aka Drinfeld), and he has no regrets
In a widely shared study from 2018, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge studied Twitter and found that false news stories on the site spread much faster than do true news stories — possibly because, they reported, the false news items had more ‘novelty’ than the true news6. The false news also tended to arouse emotions such as fear, disgust and surprise.
James Piazza is a terrorism researcher at Pennsylvania State University and he is afraid of people who use inflammatory speech on social media. “That’s the situation where you can have more violence.”
And regulations on the way from the European Union could make Musk’s ‘free speech’ rhetoric impractical as well, says Rebekah Tromble, a political scientist at George Washington University in Washington DC. The EU’s Digital Services Act, due to go into effect in 2024, will require social-media companies to mitigate risks caused by illegal content or disinformation. In theory, Twitter and other platforms could try to create separate policies and practices for Europe, but that would probably prove difficult in practice, Tromble says. When those risks are introduced in fundamental systems, the measures to mitigate those risks will impact the system as a whole.
Musk’s erratic and confrontational management of Twitter has worried many users, including researchers such as Knight. A place for scientists to broadcast their discoveries, converse with people that they would not normally meet up with, and debate issues in the common room is what they can find on the popular social media site.
Vince Knight decided in November that he was going to quit using social media. After more than a decade on the social-media platform, Knight — a mathematician at Cardiff University, UK — was concerned about the site’s direction under its new owner, entrepreneur Elon Musk, who began laying off vast numbers of staff shortly after he acquired it. Knight wrote on the platform, saying that he was jumping to Mastodon, a competing service. He doesn’t want to support Musk’s Twitter anymore.
On 11 December, Musk tweeted that his “pronouns are Prosecute/Fauci” in an apparent attempt both to mock the transgender and gender-nonconforming rights movements and to malign the departing director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Anthony Fauci, who has faced abuse and death threats for his role in advising the US government response to COVID-19.
The Scientific Impact of Twitter during the COVID-19 Pandemic: Carl Bergstrom, a Black Biologist, and Analysing the Science of Bioinformatics
“I would never be able to know so many scientists without it,” says Oded Rechavi, who works on transgenerational inheritance at Tel Aviv University in Israel. You get more opportunities in science, no matter where you are.
This double-edged nature of Twitter has never been clearer than during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many academics built up large public followings through their expert analyses about SARS-CoV-2, and made fruitful connections as scientists rushed to understand the pandemic. Carl Bergstrom is an evolutionary biologist at the University of Washington and he says that the use of a social networking site was very effective for his work. For instance, one of his most important early collaborators in trying to understand and model COVID-19 through Twitter was a hockey statistician, Bergstrom says.
It has helped to broker networks for people who don’t see people like them in their own departments, and it has also given an influential voice to people who might otherwise be excluded. She says that she didn’t meet a Black woman with a PhD until she started her own. Movements united by hashtags — from #IAmAScientistBecause to #BlackInTheIvory — have often seen Twitter acting as a rallying point for discussing key problems in academia, such as racism, sexism, harassment and bullying.
It is not always realistic to say that the idea of Twitter as a great democratizer is a good one. She says that accounts with a large, established following have more reach than average science experts on the platform.
The Science of Twitter: A Perspective from a Time-Dependent Overview of Bergstrom’s Twitter Discourse on Fauci, Musk’s Tweet about Fauci
“I don’t think we’ve done a good job of talking in school science classes about the process of doing science, and explaining to people how the social process of science operates,” he says. When you see the science in action, it’s very different.
Days after Bergstrom spoke to Nature, however, he locked his own account after Musk’s mocking tweet about Fauci. He wrote that scientific collaboration on a platform run by a right-wing troll who denies science when it’s inconvenient to him and just simply to hear his audience cheer is pointless.
“We’ve been having conversations about if Twitter is now a safe place for our organization to exist, because of the way it’s changing,” says Bonner. At this time, I don’t know.
There is not yet a space similar to the micro-Blogging site. Dynamics on Instagram, where #BlackinCancer has a foothold, are drastically different, with less conversation and less reading of posts. And on Mastodon, the open-source alternative to Twitter that Bergstrom and Knight joined, users can post longer messages, but the dynamics of the platform deliberately make it harder to discover or encounter messages from users one doesn’t directly follow, making communities more siloed and fragmented. (User numbers are still tiny compared with Twitter, estimated at some 2.5 million in early December.)
Still, Quintana is hopeful: “Despite the fact that I’ve probably got ten times more followers on Twitter, the stuff that I posted is getting about the same amount of engagement on Mastodon,” he says.
And, although the platform’s worst qualities are becoming more common, say researchers who spoke to Nature for this article, there is still a need for trained scientists to provide their expertise and point people to the best sources of evidence-based information. A health scientist at the University of Oxford argued that Bergstrom is still needed, even though he has not been seen in a while. I am staying.
For You: The Forgotten, the Forbidden, and the Wrong, Menswear-Jackie Social Media Accounts
Menswear guy. The lingerie junkie. The weird, NSFW woman who has a fascination with wolves. Depending on your interests—and often not even that—you have likely encountered one or more of these people during your sojourns on Twitter in the past few weeks.
It’s part of the platform’s effort to shift users away from a simple feed of people they follow and toward a more curated experience. The default timeline for users was based on the platform’s algorithm, part of Elon Musk’s plan to make it 888-282-0465 888-282-0465 888-282-0465 888-282-0465. The company says the For You feed serves users tweets from accounts and topics they follow, augmented by “recommended tweets” and “suggested content powered by a variety of signals.”
Those signals, according to Twitter’s FAQ on the timeline, include a tweet’s popularity on the wider platform and how people within a user’s own network of followers interact with it. The increased focus on an algorithmically- driven timeline means that previously only those in a small community can see tweets, and now it is the norm for them to be consumed by a larger audience.
The researcher at the University of Cambridge, who studies the way our digital lives are shaped by the algorithms on social media, says that it’s not news to many people. “People often complain—not unreasonably—about what ‘the algorithm’ is showing them, but there’s not really any escape from this.”
The model of virality was not perfect but it did promote dogpiling onto people that had occasionally committed minor, if bizarre, offenses. People who made troubling statements from time to time. Journalist Jon Ronson explored its impact on the humans at the center of the storm in his book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, and on an associated podcast of the same name. But there was a sense that the shame people felt was justified, because They Had Done Wrong.
Much of what we know about social media discourse is thanks to Twitter’s longtime policy of allowing free access to its data. That has made Twitter data a treasure trove for researchers eager to study online behavior, including how falsehoods and conspiracy theories circulate. Kate Starbird remembers how Twitter research dominated the field between 2010 and 2015.
50% of the social computing papers we attended were about Twitter and other things that we had access to, Starbird says.
The social network did not say how many users can download or post at $100 a month. Those who need additional access will have to have to pay more though the company didn’t disclose the pricing.
What if Twitter stops charging for API usage, researchers can continue using the application programming interface to monitor user behavior and information operations in public-interest research
The move will make it more expensive to run many automated accounts, known as bots. Some bots are useful and fun for many users, others are scam artists and propaganda which is why they promote the New York Times.
Musk has long expressed his desire to rid the platform of “bot armies.” When the first announcement was made that it will start charging for use of the app, bot watchers on the platform were worried about the imminent demise of creations they loved. After receiving feedback, Musk said that bots will keep free access.
There were no researchers if some bots were spared. Changes will limit what’s possible for researchers such as Starbird who have used the application programming interface to look at user behavior and information operations on the platform for years.
Earlier this week, after Twitter first announced that it will start charging for the API, a group of research institutions, advocacy groups and individual researchers from around the world issued an open letter calling on Twitter to maintain access for researchers so that public-interest research could continue. She said in a statement that the company should be making data access easier. Last week,NPR sent a request for more information about the decision, but twitter did not reply as of Wednesday.
People seeking influence can use the timelines shaped by who they follow to amplify their message.
While the social media landscape has splintered in the past few years, Twitter still serves as a guide post because narratives brewing in smaller platforms could bubble up on Twitter.
The main user interface of the platform can be bypassed by users with a computer program who want to send and download data in bulk from the platform.
The Future of Social Media: How to Use Twitter and Facebook to Monitor Government-Selected Insurrections and State-Spontered Disinformation
Researchers will have less access to data if they are not able to go back and look at narratives that they missed in real time.
By giving users well-documented API access, Twitter’s data has been more transparent than other major social media platforms. Meta’s offering, CrowdTangle, does not provide straightforward ways to download data in real time and in bulk the way Twitter does. Moreover, the company is reportedly winding it down and has not announced whether it will offer a replacement. Meta didn’t answer questions about CrowdTangle’s future.
TikTok announced last year that it’s testing a research API, and is “planning to expand availability in the US in the coming weeks.” An email was sent from the company to NPR. The company has come under criticism in the past year for allowing disinformation to spread on its platform. It has also faced bipartisan scrutiny due to its Chinese ownership.
If the team is not able to get a high level of access then they will have to consider what they can do with social media. They plan to focus on Telegram and TikTok while collaborating with teams that watch other platforms in the coming years.
“We’ve tended to work within the constraints we’ve had for so long.” Starbird says, and maybe there will be new creative ways to use Twitter data. It is my belief that a lot of that creativity will be better spent on other platforms.
Academic researchers have been using free access to the platform to monitor all activity over the course of the last couple of weeks, including how insurrectionists who tried to overthrow the government in the US on January 6, 2021, coordinated on the platform. This kind of research will now become much harder.
The risks involved make it less likely for social networks to grant researchers access to their data. 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. Many social media platforms choose to lock out or limit researchers from analyzing their platforms, or place extremely high prices for access to their APIs. 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.
Using Twitter to Monitor and Monitor Earthquake Relief: Akin Ünver, a Computational Social Scientist, and Aftermath of the U.S. Capitol Announcement
There is a lack of understanding about how academic funding works, and that is an extremely bad thing, says Jeremy Blackburn, who is an assistant professor in New York. “At worst it’s an attempt to grift more taxpayer money via federal funding agencies like he’s done with his other companies.”
Akin Ünver has been using Twitter data for years. He is a big fan of analyzing the biggest issues in social science. He had to set aside a certain amount of time in February to help with relief operations in Turkey and Syria after the devastating earthquake.
Aid workers in the region have been racing to rescue people trapped by debris and to provide health care and supplies to those displaced by the tragedy. Twitter has been invaluable for collecting real-time data and generating crucial maps to direct the response, says Ünver, a computational social scientist at Özyeğin University in Istanbul.
He was dismayed when he heard that the free access to the application programming interface for its users was about to end, as a key tool for analyzing large amounts of data from the platform. “Couldn’t come at a worse time,” he tweeted. “Most analysts and programmers that are building apps and functions for Turkey earthquake aid and relief, and are literally saving lives, are reliant on Twitter API.”
The rapid change in policy will cause problems for some large European Union-funded projects that were written with the assumption that free access would not be a problem. If a researcher had to pay a monthly fee, prices would quickly go up.
Data difficulties could be created if restriction of access is made. De Vreese’s colleagues have been collecting data since word of the change broke. Over time, he says, limiting access to new information could render the field over-reliant on previously downloaded data sets.
In the weeks before the announcement, Lazer had gathered enough data to produce some academic papers, including one that looked at the impact of banning certain users when a mob attacked the US Capitol. The work can’t be recreated in the long run, he says. And if another insurrection occurs, researchers will not be able to study it in the same way.