TikTok’s Strict Data Rules Are Keeping Researchers From Studying the App

The popular video site is making it difficult to gain access to its data

(Bloomberg) — As TikTok gets more popular, researchers at leading academic institutions want to study what users are doing there. Publicly, the company says it’s open to this, and is partnering with academics. But researchers said so far, the video app’s rules about data are too burdensome.

TikTok is in the process of making its application programming interface, or API, open to researchers to analyze data on the platform. But the terms of service are so strict, academics at leading institutions say they’re hesitant to accept them. The difficulty in researching TikTok comes as competing platforms also are making it more difficult to review their data and are starting to charge for access to their APIs.

Social scientists say it’s important to gain access to TikTok to understand the app’s impact on a variety of issues such as elections, public health messaging or the spread of misinformation.  By monitoring social media conversations, researchers have been able to flag inaccurate polling information that was turning away voters, for example, and help local governments better communicate with the public during natural disasters like Hurricane Idalia, which hit Florida last month. 

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TikTok’s rules state that academics must provide advance notice about upcoming research, allow the company to review papers before publication and delete some data after it’s used. Researchers said those terms could severely hamper their efforts and that some of the requirements are more demanding than rival platforms, including Google’s YouTube, Meta Platforms Inc.’s Facebook and X, formerly known as Twitter. TikTok, which is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance Ltd., comes under a unique level of scrutiny from regulators and lawmakers concerned that US user data could end up in the hands of the Chinese government. 

“TikTok is committed to working with the research community to support independent research,” a company spokesperson said. “Our goal is to make it easy to independently research our platform and bring transparency to TikTok content, while rolling out our API responsibly and in a way that helps ensure data is only used for appropriate non-commercial purposes and protects our community’s privacy rights.”

The company’s terms of service require researchers to refresh their data sets every 15 days, which is more often than competitors YouTube and X, according to one researcher in New York, who declined to be identified for fear of being blocked from access to TikTok’s API. Researchers are also required to delete some data after it’s used, which could be a challenge for those who need to replicate their work, the person said.

“The things in the TikTok terms of service that give me pause are mostly about pre-publication review, ” said Libby Hemphill, director of the Social Media Archive at the University of Michigan.

Some social media companies have asked to review research for data privacy reasons, but used that oversight as a way to try to prevent unfavorable information from reaching the public. Researchers have been able to negotiate with the social platforms to stop those practices, said Hemphill, but it’s an ongoing conversation.

TikTok said the company plans to review research only to check for personal data that may need to be removed. “To be clear, this does not grant TikTok editorial privileges regarding what is or is not published,” said the spokesperson. 

Over the past several months researchers at leading academic institutions have been in discussions with the company about loosening its terms of service. The video-sharing app hosted calls with academics in February and April, said one research program administrator whose California-based institution participated in the conversations. During the calls several other research groups brought up the same concerns, they said, but TikTok hasn’t provided a status update yet. 

The company has been actively engaging with the research community and has rolled out some improvements to its Research API based on feedback.But TikTok’s API also doesn’t provide access to all the data researchers might need, said Ben Serrette, associate director of information technology at Indiana University’s Observatory on Social Media.  The API doesn’t provide access to friend lists or information on whether a video was a stitch — a TikTok feature that’s similar to a quote repost on X — even though that data is available from other platforms like X, Bluesky and Mastodon. Serrette’s team gained access to TikTok’s API over the summer, before realizing some of these restrictions. “We’re unable to get that data from the API and so we’re unable to do some of the research that we’ve done in the past with other social media platforms,” he said.

Facebook and YouTube have similar policies about access, although they are less rigid, said the academics. The “most important issue is, there is a trust deficit, not specific to TikTok, but with social media platform based research in general,” said Joyojeet Pal, associate professor of information at the University of Michigan.

The relationship between social media giants and researchers has always been fraught, but things have escalated in recent months. Twitter, now known as X, began charging for access to its API in February. That meant researchers who could previously view millions of posts for free, have to pay thousands of dollars for access to a fraction of that amount. Reddit also began charging for access to its data in June, leading to boycotts across the site from third-party apps and users. And in July X sued a research organization that found a rise in harmful content on its platform. Some in the research community fear other social media sites may follow X’s example. 

“In other words, any academic doing this is taking some risks that the data may either not be theirs to use at some point, or that the work will be undermined by other structural factors,” Pal said. 

Still, because of the TikTok’s prominence, researchers say they need to look at who uses it and how. The social media company still has the chance to become a leader in the field by opening up the app’s data in a fair way, the academics said, adding they are hopeful that TikTok and its rivals will response to the feedback and open their platforms in a meaningful way.

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