a lot has been written about Elon Musk’s bid to take over Twitter, an effort that, despite significant support from Morgan Stanley and approval from Twitter’s board of directors, is currently on limbo.
Reporting and punditry have focused on the security implications of the proposed acquisition, as well as Musk’s potential approaches to content moderation and, on a related topic, his understanding of the concept of “free speech.” But another consistent aspect of the deal has received significantly less attention: how Twitter’s data access policies for research might change under a Musk regime.
Twitter hasn’t always had a friendly relationship with researchers. In recent years, however, the social network has made strides in granting access to its archives at a time when rivals have taken the opposite step. In January 2021, Twitter claimed that academic researchers were one of the largest groups using its API.
Some researchers are concerned that Musk does not share the same commitment to open data access, especially given the vitriol he has shown in the past regarding reporting that paints his companies (including Tesla) in an unflattering light.
Until now, Twitter has been unique among the major platforms in the way they have made data available to researchers. David G Rand
In 2018, Musk promised to — but ultimately did not — build a website to assess the “core truth” of articles and journalists in response to reports of Tesla car crashes, Tesla labor problems and its relationship with Wall Street.
Mor Naaman, a professor of information science at Cornell Tech, envisions a future in which Musk becomes hostile to researchers who expose Twitter’s “challenges and shortcomings.”
“I am pessimistic that Twitter will continue to push for accountability as a private company under Musk,” Naaman, who has worked with Twitter data since 2009, told Marketingwithanoy via email. “I don’t believe that research like we’ve done on [former President Donald Trump’s] Stop the Steal campaign — and the data we’ve collected from Twitter and made available to other researchers, which has been used in 12 different papers since last year — should be allowed to take place under Musk. Second, I can’t imagine internal teams investigating the ethics and bias of the company’s systems will continue to function properly, let alone publish their findings publicly.
“If they continue to publish, these publications will have a much harder time overcoming the pre-existing suspicion about the business-friendly bias of platforms publishing their own research papers.”
Among other promises, Musk has said he plans to “beat spam bots” on Twitter – seemingly referring to the malicious accounts that fake misinformation and perpetuate scams. But not all bots are harmful, Orestis Papakyriakopoulos, a postdoctoral researcher at the MIT Media Lab, told Marketingwithanoy via email.