Next year will bring a series of high-profile elections around the globe, including in India, Taiwan, the United States and, in all likelihood, the United Kingdom, as well as for the European Parliament. Social media will play a huge part in bringing information to the hundreds of millions of people casting their votes — and researchers who study elections are worried.
Access to social-media data is essential to those who research political campaigns and their outcomes. However, unlike in previous years, scientists will not have free access to data from X, previously known as Twitter. Many still consider X to be among the world’s most influential social-media platforms for political discussion, but the company has discontinued its policy of giving researchers special access to its data. Disinformation campaigns — some armed with AI-generated deepfakes — are likely to be rampant in the coming months, says Ulrike Klinger, who studies political communication at the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder), Germany. “And we cannot monitor them because we don’t have access to data.”
Until its change of policy, X was an outlier in its open approach to providing data for research. Because researchers’ access to data from technology platforms is controlled by the companies themselves, firms can cherry-pick which studies they allow to go forwards, potentially creating a skewed image of their performance.
Tech companies are starting to report on how they are tackling online harms, as many did last week in submissions to the European Union’s Transparency Centre. But good science demands studies from individuals and teams unaffiliated with the platforms. Such studies would make it possible to authenticate the claims made in the companies’ reporting, or to determine how common misinformation is, which communities are being targeted, and how effective — or harmful — that misinformation is. Beyond the immediate concerns about elections, reliable data are also needed to address long-standing concerns about online platforms, including their impact on mental health, and the prevalence of harassment, privacy violations and hate speech associated with gender, ethnicity, sexuality and other characteristics. [Continue reading…]