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.”
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.”