Musk’s Twitter Shake-Up Could Deliver a Critical Blow to Social Media Research

November 9, 2022  ·   Commentary

We still don’t know the extent of what Musk has actually changed within Twitter. But without mandated data access for researchers, we risk never knowing their impact on society as well.

A glass wall with a Twitter logo.

Credit: Kevin Krejci

This article was originally published at The Hill.

In just one week, billionaire Elon Musk has made his mark as the new head of Twitter. 

He’s announced several product changes, including charging users $8 to be verified on the platform, reviving the short-form video product Vine, and shelving Twitter’s newsletter project. 

Then on Friday, he laid off half of Twitter’s staff, about 3,500 employees.

How will the platform change as a result of Musk’s new direction? Of particular interest is the impact of Musk's changes on key issues of platform health, such as the amount of hate speech and harassment, misinformation, and foreign propaganda that is present.

Even before last week’s layoffs, with Twitter at full strength, there was early evidence of problems emerging. One study, for example, found use of the ‘N-word’ rose 500 percent immediately after Musk took over.

We’re in the aftermath of a critical midterm election. As we look to the coming months and years, it’s vital to understand the extent to which behaviors on the platform change (or don’t), and for this knowledge to be shared with policymakers, journalists, and civil society and community organizations.  

The only way we can know the impact of Musk’s leadership is through independent research to measure what is going on on the platform — and unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that work can continue. Independent research is what ensures society can understand the impact of what happens on social media platforms — and not just what the platforms choose to report to society.

Twitter has always been one of the most open platforms for academic researchers to study. Most posts are public and Twitter has several tools enabling independent research. By comparison, Meta, YouTube, and TikTok share very limited data, remaining largely closed off from academics and media. As a result, much of the work studying how social media impacts society focuses on Twitter.

When he first announced his plan to buy Twitter, Musk seemingly endorsed more transparency for how the platform works. But with his layoffs on Friday, Musk gutted the teams in charge of this and other important work.

He disbanded Twitter’s Machine Learning Ethics, Transparency, and Accountability team, which served as “the company’s strongest internal watchdog group.” He laid off Twitter’s director of public policy and elections, who led the platform’s 2022 midterms policy. He fired researchers with Twitter’s Birdwatch program, designed to allow ordinary users to fact-check content. And there are countless others whose layoffs will make Twitter a less safe and healthy platform.

To develop long-term, systematic measurements of the effect of these layoffs — and Musk’s acquisition more broadly — researchers must continue to have access to platform data from Twitter. 

Unfortunately, there’s no mandate to grant access to data. It remains at the whim of the platforms and the people who control them. While Musk has publicly committed to transparency, his decision to lay off the staff members dedicated to undertaking internal and enabling external research undermines the platform’s openness. 

Over the past few years, policymakers have introduced a number of bills to regulate social media, focusing on topics ranging from antitrust to algorithms to children’s safety. Nothing has moved forward, but one of the few areas of bipartisan agreement seems to be the importance of data access. 

Last year, Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) unveiled the Platform Accountability and Transparency Act, and Rep. Lori Trahan (D-Mass.) introduced a bill to create an Office of Independent Research Facilitation within a new bureau of the Federal Trade Commission. Both would go a long way in securing the data we need to better study social media platforms, and lawmakers should prioritize them as soon as possible.

It’s been a whirlwind week for Musk, Twitter and all the platform’s users. There may be more changes yet to come. Musk has promised to bring more “free speech” to Twitter, and he’s considered bringing back banned users such as former President Donald Trump. Already, advertisers, which account for 90 percent of Twitter’s revenue, are skittish and have started pulling ads.

In the midst of this shake-up, we still don’t know the extent of what Musk has actually changed within Twitter. But without mandated data access for researchers, we risk never knowing their impact on society as well.