Elon Musk goes to war against researchers – POLITICO

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Expressed by artificial intelligence.

When Elon Musk bought Twitter, he promised an era of openness for the social media platform. However, this transparency will soon have a price.

Thursday, the social media giant will close free and unfettered access to tons of data on the company’s millions of users. As part of the overhaul, researchers around the world who monitor disinformation and hate speech will also have their access closed – unless they release the money to keep the data accessible.

The move is part of Musk’s push to make Twitter profitable amid declining ad revenue, slow user growth and stiff competition from TikTok and Instagram.

But the change has angered academics, infuriated lawmakers and potentially put Twitter at odds with new content moderation rules in the European Union that require such data access for independent researchers.

“Closing down or requiring paid access to the API from researchers will be devastating,” said Rebekah Tromble, director of the Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics at George Washington University, who has spent years building on the Twitter API for tracking potentially harmful content online.

“There are inequities in resources for researchers around the world. Scholars at Ivy League institutions in the United States could probably afford to pay,” she added. “But there are scholars all over the world who simply won’t have the resources to pay anything to access it.”

The change would reduce free access to Twitter’s so-called application program interface (API), which allowed outsiders to follow what happened on the large-scale platform. The API essentially gave outsiders direct access to the company’s data feeds and was kept open to allow researchers to monitor users, including to spot harmful, false or misleading content.

A team from New York University, for example, published a report last month on the extent of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election by directly exploiting Twitter’s API system. Without that access, the level of Kremlin interference would have been lost to history, according to Joshua Tucker, co-director of the Center for Social Media and Politics at New York University.

Twitter did not respond to repeated requests to comment on whether this week’s change would affect academics and other independent researchers. The move may still not happen at all, depending on how Twitter changes its policies. The business development team said via a social media post last week it has pledged to allow others to access the platform through some form of API.

“We’ll come back with more details on what you can expect next week,” they said.

Still, the lack of details on who will be affected – and how much it will cost to access the data from February 9 – has left academics and other researchers scrambling for specifics. Meanwhile, many Twitter employees working on trust and safety issues have been laid off or left the company since Musk bought Twitter for $44 billion in late October.

In Europe’s sights

The moment for change comes as the European Commission will release its first reports from social media companies, including Twitter, on Thursday on how they comply with the EU’s so-called code of practice on disinformation, a voluntary agreement between EU lawmakers and Big Tech companies where those companies agree to abide by a set of principles to clamp down on this material. The code of practice includes promises to “empower researchers” by improving their ability to access company data to track online content.

EU Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton spoke to Musk last week to remind him of his obligations regarding the block’s content rules, but none mentioned the upcoming shutdown of free data access on the network. social.

“We cannot rely solely on the evaluation of the platforms themselves. If access to researchers deteriorates, it would most likely go against the spirit of this commitment,” Věra Jourová, European Commission Vice-President for Values ​​and Transparency, told POLITICO.

“It is worrying to see a trend reversal on Twitter,” she added in reference to the likely reduction in outsider access to company data.

Although the bloc’s disinformation standards are not mandatory, separate content rules from Brussels, known as the Digital Services Act, also directly oblige social media companies to provide access to data to so-called controlled researchers. By complying with the Misinformation Code of Practice, tech giants can relax some of their compliance obligations under these separate content moderation rules and avoid fines of up to 6% of their revenue if they fail to comply. not standards.

Yet even Twitter’s inclusion in the Voluntary Disinformation Standards is on shaky ground.

The company submitted its initial report which will be released on Wednesday and Musk said he was committed to following the rules. But Camino Rojo – who was head of public policy for Spain and was Twitter’s main person involved in day-to-day work on the code since the mass layoffs in November – has not worked at the tech giant since the last week, according to two people. with direct knowledge of the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal discussions within Twitter. Rojo did not respond to a request for comment.

US lawmakers are also trying to pass legislation that would improve researchers’ access to social media companies following a series of scandals. The role of corporations in promoting the Jan. 6 Capitol riots sparked calls for further scrutiny, as did the so-called Facebook Files revelations by whistleblower Frances Haugen, which highlighted how difficult it is for foreigners to understand what is happening on these platforms.

“Twitter should make it easier to study what’s happening on its platform, not harder,” U.S. Representative Lori Trahan, Democrat of Massachusetts, said in a statement referring to the upcoming data access change. . “This is the latest in a series of bad tricks from Twitter under the leadership of Elon Musk.”

Rebecca Kern contributed reporting from Washington.

This article has been updated to reflect a change in the date on which the European Commission is supposed to publish reports under the Disinformation Code of Practice.


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