April 3, 2023
On March 29th, after weeks of delays and uncertainty, Twitter’s Developer team announced details about new pricing tiers for access to the Twitter API that will devastate public interest research.
Over the past decade, researchers across the world have relied on Twitter’s API to study the impact of social media on democracy, the role of social media in strengthening public health, how social media has been used to amplify marginalized voices, and much more. With free API access, researchers could systematically and reliably collect public tweets posted by public figures, gather information about network dynamics, investigate bots and other inauthentic activity, or analyze conversations around specific topics. The knowledge from this research has been shared with journalists, policymakers, and the public, enhancing understanding of issues vital to society.
Free API access also allowed researchers to build public tools like Botometer and Hoaxy that detect social bots and visualize the spread of misinformation. Thousands of users, journalists, and public servants have used these tools in their daily lives and work.
Twitter’s new system to monetize and dramatically restrict access to its API will render this research and development impossible. Unless they can pay, researchers will not be able to collect any tweets at all. The Basic tier costs $100 per month but allows researchers to collect only 10,000 tweets per month—a mere 0.3% of what could previously be collected for free in one day. The Enterprise tier, which ranges from $42,000 to $210,000 per month, is unaffordable for researchers.
Yet even these outrageously expensive Enterprise tiers provide inadequate access for systematic, large-scale research into the impact of Twitter on society. Previously, Twitter provided researchers with low-cost access to its Decahose, a real-time sample of 10% of all tweets. As of March 2023, that equated to roughly a billion tweets per month. The most expensive Enterprise tier would cut that by 80% at about 400 times the price.
In response to a questionnaire fielded by the Coalition for Independent Technology Research, public interest researchers listed over 250 projects that would be jeopardized by ending free and low-cost API access, including research into the spread of harmful content, (dis)information flows, crisis informatics, news consumption, public health, elections, and political behavior. Under the new pricing plans, studying the communications and interactions of even a small population—such as the 535 Members of the U.S. Congress or the 705 Members of the European Parliament—will be unfeasible. The new pricing plans will also end at least 76 long-term efforts, including dashboards, tools, or code packages that support other researchers, journalists, first-responders, educators, and Twitter users.
Though Twitter’s Developer team claimed that they “are looking at new ways to continue serving” academia, they provided no specifics—merely stating that “in the meantime” academic researchers could make use of the pricing plans described above.
What precisely is Twitter “looking into” for academia? How long might academics have to wait for these new options to appear? And what are Twitter’s plans for non-academic public interest researchers, including civil society organizations serving communities around the globe?
Twitter has not answered any of these questions. Indeed, to date, the company has failed to engage with the research community in any meaningful way. Twitter has had mechanisms for dialogue with our community readily available—including via the European Digital Media Observatory, shared working groups tied to the European Union’s Code of Practice on Disinformation, and the company’s own Academic Research Advisory Board. Twitter has not used any of these channels, rolling out these changes without substantive input from public interest researchers whose work will be shut down.
The Coalition for Independent Technology Research will continue to support the research community in the face of these challenges. Since Twitter first announced that it would begin charging for API access, we have provided mutual aid to nearly 50 projects, focusing in particular on assisting under-resourced and junior researchers. We have supported the National German Library’s German-language Twitter archive efforts, and two groups associated with the Coalition have offered data storage support for researchers.
Our mutual aid efforts are ongoing and will persist as long as possible. Mutual aid is available to all researchers across academia, journalism, and civil society—members and non-members alike. (To request mutual aid or contribute to these efforts, please complete the mutual aid section of this form.)
Going forward, the Coalition will also help organize researchers who wish to explore alternative data-collection and data-sharing mechanisms. And we will continue our discussions with policymakers and regulators around the world.
Twitter must be held accountable to the public it impacts. And if Twitter is to be held accountable, independent research must continue.
That is why—no matter what barriers technology companies erect to public understanding of their services—the Coalition for Independent Technology Research will advance, defend, and work to sustain the right to ethically study the impacts of technology on society.
The Coalition for Independent Technology Research
Rebekah Tromble, George Washington University
Alex Abdo, Knight First Amendment Institute
Susan Benesch, Dangerous Speech Project
Brandi Geurkink, Mozilla Foundation
Dave Karpf, George Washington University
David Lazer, Northeastern University
Nathalie Maréchal, Center for Democracy & Technology
Nathan Matias, Cornell University
James Mickens, Harvard University
Mike Miller, Daniel Patrick Moynihan Center
Ethan Zuckerman, University of Massachusetts, Amherts
Mutual Aid Committee*
Megan Brown, NYU
Josephine Lukito, University of Texas, Austin
Kai-Cheng Yang, Indiana University, Bloomington
* Affiliations provided for identification purposes only