Democracy today requires access to social media data

  • Election 24

Dr Verena Brändle and Dr Charlotte Galpin, Department of Political Science and International Studies, University of Birmingham 

In this piece Dr Verena Brändle and Dr Charlotte Galpin of the Department of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Birmingham explore the need for researchers to have better access to data so they can explore the impacts social media is having on democratic processes around the world.  

The ‘biggest election year ever’ is in full swing, with around 70 national elections taking place in 2024, among them India, the UK, and the US, and social scientists researching social media will have mixed feelings. IPSOS have described this year as a ‘test for global democracy’, with populist parties and actors on many of the ballots around the world.

Social media facilitate democratic digital activism, and they can be powerful tools for minoritised voices to mobilise and claim representation. Yet, social media disinformation, forms of online marginalisation and violence towards, e.g., the LGBTQ+ community, and electoral interference are associated with democratic backsliding around the world.

Social media abuse, for example, can be considered a form of ‘participatory inequality’, raising serious questions about the possibilities for general election debates that are open and safe for all. Charlotte Galpin and Patrick Vernon have argued that the abuse often faced by women, LGBTQ+ and racialised scholars, or those conducting feminist, queer or decolonial research, when engaging with the media about their research also risks distorting public debates, reducing the public’s access to diverse views and trust in critical research findings.

However, despite the central role of social media in contemporary democracies, researchers’ access to empirical data of and on social media has become increasingly restricted, limiting nuanced, reliable, and robust insights into how social media shape democratic debate and politics. Based on our research, we argue that more needs to be done to support scientific investigations of social media content and suggest three ways for policymakers to do so.

Elon Musk limited academic access to the X API. Meta has just announced the closure of its Crowdtangle platform that has provided access to some of its data for researchers, and a transition to a new Meta Content Library overseen by the University of Michigan. Guaranteed access to Crowdtangle was already difficult, with Meta defining the topics of research it considers important to support and controlling the access it grants to the platform on this basis. It remains to be seen how open the Meta Content Library and API will be for social media researchers.

Moreover, the EU Digital Services Act, in force since February 2024, requires the largest social media platforms to make data available to ‘vetted’ researchers for the purposes of assessing ‘systemic risks’ in the EU, namely dissemination of illegal content, threats to fundamental rights, and ‘intentional manipulation’ of platform services. However, the European Commission’s guidance on how and what data should be made available is still awaited at the time of writing and researchers have begun collecting experiences of this ‘vetting process’.

Furthermore, data access will be overseen by national ‘Digital Services Coordinators’ appointed in each EU member state, meaning that non-EU researchers may not gain access. The DSA’s reference to ‘systemic risks in the EU’ also suggests that data access may not be granted to those focused on challenges to democracy outside this context. The UK’s new Online Safety Act only stipulates that the broadcast regulator OFCOM should produce a report into researcher access to social media data, with no mechanisms to actually require it.

The considerable uncertainties facing the research community make long-term planning risky and turn cross-country, comparative research into a matter of access. In a systematic review, Verena K. Brändle, Olga Eisele and Aytalina Kulichkina find that collaborative, comparative evidence on whether and how different contexts enable or limit digital LGBTQ+ activism, is hard to come by, and put forward a comparative framework that is more sensitive to social media as well as political contexts.

Crucially, lack of data access stands in the way of producing robust, comparative findings across cultural and political contexts. To understand digital forms of democratic participation, such as digital LGBTQ+ activism, and challenges such as online abuse for example, therefore also means we must consider how access to social media data reinforces existing global inequalities in the scientific knowledge production process. In other words, without independent access to data, we simply cannot understand how digital politics continues to unfold across different platforms and contexts. While there is a wealth of in-depth studies on specific countries or cases available, we see an ‘unfulfilled potential for comparative research’.

Therefore, we recommend that the next government recognises the significance of social media data for our understanding of democracy, including the participation of minority groups, by improving researcher access to social media data via regulation of social media platforms as democratically critical companies. This could be done through:

  • extending the Online Safety Act to require data access for researchers, and expand OFCOM’s remit to enforce this
  • introducing a contact point for researchers within OFCOM to monitor and resolve issues with data access
  • cooperating and coordinating more closely with the EU on Digital Services, something that stalled as a result of the diplomatic impasse over Northern Ireland.

About the authors

Verena Brändle is a political scientist specialising in European politics at University of Birmingham. Her research focuses on topics related to digital democracy, social media, representation, and border politics. Previously Verena was Senior Research Fellow at the Department of Communication at the University of Vienna.

Charlotte Galpin is Associate Professor in German and European Politics at University of Birmingham. She was previously a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Copenhagen and a teaching fellow at the University of Bath. Her research lies at the intersection of political science, sociology and media and communication studies, with a particular interest in the European public sphere, European and national identities, and democracy and citizenship.

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