Twitter just took a major step toward making it easier for researchers to understand the conversations happening on its platform. The company introduced a new version of its API that will allow researchers to access wide swaths of public Twitter data, along with advanced search features.
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.
Twitter also notes that this is just a “starting point” and that the company intends to build out more features specifically for researchers, as well as resources to help them take full advantage of the tools.