Twitter is making it easier for researchers to study its platform

Twitter on Tuesday announced a significant shift in the type of data it makes available for free to third-party academic researchers interested in studying user behaviors and trends related to online discourse. Now, Twitter says it will no longer require researchers pay for premium or enterprise developer access and will instead make the “full history of public conversation” — what the company refers to as its full-archive search endpoint available to any researcher or developer who applies as part of the launch of a new academic research track.

The new Academic Research track could have major implications for researchers studying election security, misinformation and other big issues affecting Twitter. While the company has previously made this kind of data available to developers, it was prohibitively expensive for most researchers. But with the new API, approved researchers will be able access a full history of all public conversations on Twitter, as well as advanced search and filtering tools for free.

There are, however, a few limitations. For one, it won’t be available to independent researchers. According to Twitter, the research API will be limited to Twitter-approved students or “research-focused employees” of academic institutions. Additionally, Twitter only provides historical data for accounts and conversations that are currently viewable on its platform. That means tweets from suspended accounts, or content that’s been removed, won’t be accessible to researchers. This could be a significant hurdle to people studying misinformation, extremism, hate speech, or other areas where content often violates Twitter’s rules.

It also means that researchers will, for now, be unable to formally access tweets from Donald Trump’s account now that he’s been permanently banned. “We’ve heard a lot of interest from the academic research community in studying @realDonaldTrump,” says Leanne Trujillo, senior program manager for Twitter’s developer platform. “We’re having conversations internally about how we might give thoughtful consideration to the study of this topic.”

But even with those limitations, the new tool could prove to be a valuable resource for a broad range of research. Historically, Twitter data has been used to study everything from the flu to linguistics. More recently, tweets have been a valuable source for those studying election misinformation and the coronavirus pandemic.

In addition to opening up its public archive, Twitter says it’s also giving approved applicants a higher monthly tweet volume cap of 10 million tweets, which is 20 times higher than what was available on the standard free track before. It’s also allowing more precise filtering to help researchers pinpoint tweets and other data relevant to what they’re studying and “new technical and methodological guides” for helping researchers find what they’re looking for and better make use of it in studies.

Twitter says interested academics and developers can apply to the new academic research track on the company’s developer website.

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