Twitter wants to make it easier for researchers to analyze tweets


Twitter has a trove of data from public tweets.

James Martin/CNET

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Twitter said Tuesday it’s releasing new tools to make it easier for academic researchers who want to analyze the social network’s data to study a variety of topics including the coronavirus pandemic, misinformation and hate speech.

Researchers who qualify will get free access to public tweets that are older than a week and be able to retrieve a higher amount of data every month. The company said it’s improving the ways researchers filter the data so they can get more precise information from public accounts. The features are part of a new version of Twitter’s application programming interface launched last year that gives developers access to the site’s public data. 

“Our decision to invest in the academic research community is rooted in recognition of the value and impact their work has on the world and Twitter,” said Adam Tornes, a product manager for Twitter’s developer platform, in a press call. 

Researchers, for example, have used Twitter data to study the levels of stress, anxiety and loneliness during the coronavirus pandemic and the spread of hate speech

Twitter said the most common topics researchers are interested in studying include misinformation and disinformation, the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 US elections and hate speech. But as the company increases access to public user data, Twitter also has to balance concerns about privacy. Twitter data doesn’t include tweets from suspended accounts. Developers would also be required to delete data when it’s no longer public, Tornes said.

Those rules make it tougher to study topics such as hate speech and misinformation because those tweets could get pulled down by the company. Twitter has also heard interest from researchers about studying tweets from former President Donald Trump’s personal account. In an unprecedented move, Twitter permanently barred Trump from the platform over concerns about inciting violence after the deadly Capitol Hill riot. 

Leanne Trujillo, a program manager of Twitter’s developer platform, said the company has archived official White House-related accounts from the Trump administration and released data about state-backed information operations. “We’re having conversations internally about how we might give thoughtful consideration to the study of this topic,” she said when asked about Trump’s suspended account. Trujillo also noted, though, it isn’t a “specific focus area right now.”

Researchers will have to submit an application to Twitter to receive access to this trove of data. To be eligible, applicants have to be a “master’s student, doctoral candidate, post-doc, faculty, or research-focused employee at an academic institution or university.” They also have to a “clearly defined research objective,” and the research must be used for “non-commercial purposes.”

Twitter, for example, mentions in its policy for developers that you can’t use the Twitter API to calculate the site’s monthly active users or measure the responsiveness of the company.

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