TikTok's Strict Data Rules Deter Researchers and Raise Concerns

TikTok, the platform renowned for viral dances, lip-syncing youngsters, and an endless scroll of quick-hit videos, has discovered that some individuals genuinely want to study what's happening. Consider this: However, it appears that TikTok's data policies have left researchers fleeing for the hills—or, more accurately, scrolling for the exits.

TikTok, you see, is gladly offering up its application programming interface (API) to academics so that they can delve into the treasure trove of user data. On the surface, it appears to be a scientific utopia, an opportunity to learn how teens can perfect dance overnight and why cats appear to rule the internet. But wait a minute.

The fine print of TikTok's terms of service is making these eager academics think twice about jumping on the viral bandwagon. It turns out TikTok has some pretty strict rules for sharing its data, and researchers are finding them about as welcoming as a "For You Page" algorithm fail.

The problem is that social scientists are eager to obtain TikTok's data in order to examine a range of societal problems. They want to investigate how TikTok influences elections, public health messaging, and disinformation propagation. Really, it's all really noble. Researchers have been known to identify incorrect polling material that was discouraging voters and even assist local governments in communicating more effectively amid natural disasters. TikTok, on the other hand, appears to take a different attitude.

According to TikTok's data policies, researchers must provide advance notice of forthcoming research, allow the company to review their papers before publication, and part ways with some of the data they've utilized.

These conditions have made many academics hit the pause button on their research ambitions, citing TikTok's requirements as stricter than those of rival platforms like Google's YouTube, Meta Platforms Inc.'s Facebook, and X (formerly known as Twitter).

But, TikTok, why the harsh love? As it turns out, TikTok is being scrutinized by regulators and lawmakers who are concerned that US user data may end up in the hands of the Chinese government. As a result, they've tightened their grip. Doesn't that make sense?

TikTok, in its defense, claims to be all about encouraging scientific collaboration and promoting independent investigations. They claim to want to make it simple for researchers to accomplish their work while protecting the privacy of their community.

However, it appears that some of TikTok's terms of service are a little too restricted for researchers. For example, the necessity to refresh data sets every 15 days is more frequent than what the competition requires. And researchers are finding it particularly challenging to deal with the demand to delete some data after it's been used, primarily when replicating research.

But, hey, this isn't the first time social media titans and scholars have clashed. The relationship has always been a little rocky. Remember when Twitter, now known as X, began charging researchers for API access? This caused quite a stir in the academic community, and Reddit joined in by charging for data access as well. Even X sued a research organization after it discovered an increase in hazardous content on its site. So, it's safe to say that things are a bit jumbled out there.

Nonetheless, TikTok, with its young audience and evident cultural impact, provides an excellent chance for researchers to investigate who is doing what and why. The platform could become a trailblazer in the field by opening up its data in a more researcher-friendly manner. Let's hope TikTok and its counterparts hear the feedback and decide to let academics join the dance. After all, what's a viral sensation without a bit of scrutiny, right?

Read next: TikTok and Google Search called a Match Made in Internet Heaven?
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