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TikTok’s Rules on Data Access Hinders Academic Research, Researchers Say

Researchers at leading academic institutions are finding it challenging to study user behavior on TikTok due to the platform’s strict rules on data access. While TikTok has expressed its willingness to partner with academics and make its application programming interface (API) available for analysis, researchers argue that the terms of service are too burdensome.

Access to TikTok’s data is crucial for social scientists to understand the platform’s impact on various issues, such as elections, public health messaging, and the spread of misinformation. Monitoring social media conversations has proven useful in identifying and addressing inaccuracies in polling information or improving communication during natural disasters. However, TikTok’s requirements, including providing advance notice, review of research papers, and data deletion, pose significant obstacles for researchers, and are more demanding than those of rival platforms like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter.

TikTok, being owned Beijing-based ByteDance Ltd., is subject to scrutiny from regulators and lawmakers concerned about the potential transfer of US user data to the Chinese government. In response to the concerns, TikTok stated its commitment to working with the research community and ensuring data is used appropriately and protects users’ privacy rights.

Researchers are also concerned about the frequency of data refresh and the deletion of data after use. Refreshing data every 15 days and deleting data can hinder replication of research and pose challenges for researchers needing access to historical data.

While some social media companies have previously used the review process to prevent unfavorable information from being published, TikTok has clarified that its review process is primarily for identifying and removing personal data, not for editorial control.

TikTok has engaged with the research community and made improvements to its Research API based on feedback. However, academics highlight that the API does not provide access to all necessary data, such as friend lists or information on specific features like stitches. Researchers fear a trust deficit between social media platforms and researchers, citing recent incidents where platforms like Twitter and Reddit started charging for data access or took legal actions against research organizations.

Despite the challenges, researchers emphasize the importance of studying TikTok due to its popularity and influence. TikTok has the opportunity to become a leader in the field facilitating open access to data for academic research, benefiting both the platform and researchers seeking a deeper understanding of user behavior and its wider implications.

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