TikTok recently reportedly pulled a tool that allowed researchers and others to study the popularity of hashtags on its app.

The change, first reported by The New York Times, came shortly after researchers published a report using data from the tool that criticized the company.

As The New York Times points out, the tool is one of the few publicly accessible methods for tracking details about the popularity of specific hashtags.

TikTok, like other social media companies, has made it difficult for outsiders to track how content spreads on its app.

The tool in question is a feature called Creative Center, which provides data on hashtag popularity to potential advertisers and others.

Researchers at Rutgers’ Network Contagion Institute have used the Creative Center’s search function to track hashtags deemed sensitive to Chinese government interests.

The researchers compared hashtag prevalence between TikTok and Instagram and concluded that many sensitive topics are dramatically underrepresented on TikTok compared to Instagram.

Soon after the report was published, researchers said that the search feature in Creative Center disappeared without explanation.

“The search capacity for Hashtags itself has now been removed from the user interface completely, which NCRI discovered had occurred on Christmas Day, several days after the initial release of this report,” they wrote in an addendum to the report as quoted by Tech Viral from Engagdet, Thursday (11/ 1/2024).

They added that TikTok had also disabled direct access to a number of sensitive topics they had previously tracked, including hashtags related to US politics and other geopolitical issues.

In a statement to The New York Times, TikTok confirmed the change. “Unfortunately, some individuals and organizations have misused the Center’s search function to draw inaccurate conclusions, so we changed some features to ensure they are used as intended,” a TikTok spokesperson said.

The chaos is the latest example of growing tensions between social media companies and researchers trying to study thorny topics such as misinformation.

TikTok Rule The Internet

Meta is also at odds with researchers, and reportedly plans to no longer use CrowdTangle, a tool widely used by researchers and journalists to study how content spreads on Facebook.

X has also severely restricted researchers’ access to data since Elon Musk took control of the company, making previously open APIs prohibitively expensive for most groups.

In TikTok’s case, the company may be particularly sensitive to what it considers inappropriate use of its tools. The company has for years denied that it aligns its content policies with the interests of the Chinese government as many government officials have called for the app to be banned.

Nonetheless, the company has made some concessions to researchers. TikTok began offering an official Research API to some academic institutions last year, and reportedly plans to make the tool available to some civil society groups who have questioned the company’s content moderation practices.