The Data Abyss: How Lack of Data Access Leaves Research and Society in the Dark

May 20, 2023

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The importance of social media platforms in our daily lives, our democratic processes, and our societies as a whole cannot be easily overstated. Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, TikTok and other digital platforms have changed the way we hear about politics, the way we talk about politics, and the configuration of the public sphere itself. As a result, our research agendas have changed dramatically in the past decade, and both conference programs and journal publications reflect the central role social media now play in political communication the world over.

Despite this boom in the volume of social media research, however, the alarming truth is that there is still a great deal that we do not know about the role of platforms and social media in democratic processes, and a lot of what we think we know is based on biased, sub-optimal data (Tromble, Citation2021). Though the business model of social media platforms is based on collecting, analyzing, and sharing user data, these same data are not available to academic researchers who seek to better understand the platforms’ impacts, for better and for worse, on democracy and politics writ large. The limitations have been especially severe since 2018, when platforms began shutting down or restricting access to their application programming interfaces (APIs) in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Though the data collected from platforms APIs have never been ideal (Tromble, Jacobs, et al., Citation2019), limiting researchers’ access to APIs has significantly impeded our knowledge and insights (Freelon, Citation2018).

You can access the complete research article in Political Communication.