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Social media companies are frustrating scientific research

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Tech giants like Facebook and Instagram are taking more and more steps to shield their data from scientists. This practice is frustrating research and leaving pressing questions regarding social issues unanswered.

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Social media contain a wealth of information about people’s online behaviour that is interesting not only for advertisers, but also for scientists. To find out more about things like fake news, consumer behaviour and the spread of extremist propaganda, researchers need access to the vast databases of social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram.

But in the wake of several widely publicised data leak scandals, tech giants are increasingly hesitant to provide such access, reports Times Higher Education. Researchers fear that, if this trend persists, they will in time lose all access to vital social media data.

Fake news
“The amount of data that we are able to retrieve has fallen sharply in recent years,” says Anne Helmond, lecturer in New Media and Digital Culture at the University of Amsterdam. “On the one hand, it’s a good thing that you can’t just get all kinds of potentially sensitive data from these companies, but on the other hand it does limit our research possibilities.”

This will make it increasingly challenging to conduct research into the way misinformation – or fake news – spreads across social media. “If we are unable to map friend networks on platforms like Facebook, or if we can’t access data on the number of times certain articles have been liked or shared, it will be really difficult to track the spread of information and to identify key persons or pages,” Helmond says.

 In most cases, scientists receive data through gateways called application programming interfaces, or APIs, which can be used to build apps on platforms like Facebook and Instagram. “These gateways allow us to retrieve data from social media platforms,” explains Helmond. But APIs are highly regulated, and tech giants are free to limit access to their data as they see fit.

Priority for researchers
The solution, according to Helmond, would be separate ‘research APIs’, which would only be accessible to researchers. This would make it impossible for commercial companies and other developers to abuse the data made available through these access points. Some platforms – such as Facebook and Twitter – are already considering introducing dedicated research APIs, but there is no general plan of action yet. “What kind of data will be shared through these APIs? How will we verify users? These kinds of questions need to be considered carefully,” Helmond acknowledges.

According to Times Higher Education, the European Union has also expressed concern about the availability of data for research purposes, and is considering legislation which would force social media companies to share their data with researchers. The ultimate goal would be to eliminate these companies’ control over stored research data entirely.

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