How Zeynep Tufekci Keeps Getting the Big Things Right - The New York Times
Ms. Tufekci, a computer programmer who became a sociologist, sounded an early alarm on the need for protective masks. It wasn’t the first time she was right about something big.
In recent years, many public voices have gotten the big things wrong — election forecasts, the effects of digital media on American politics, the risk of a pandemic. Ms. Tufekci, a 40-something who speaks a mile a minute with a light Turkish accent, has none of the trappings of the celebrity academic or the professional pundit. But long before she became perhaps the only good amateur epidemiologist, she had quietly made a habit of being right on the big things.
In 2011, she went against the current to say the case for Twitter as a driver of broad social movements had been oversimplified. In 2012, she warned news media outlets that their coverage of school shootings could inspire more. In 2013, she argued that Facebook could fuel ethnic cleansing. In 2017, she warned that YouTube’s recommendation algorithm could be used as a tool of radicalization.
And when it came to the pandemic, she sounded the alarm early while also fighting to keep parks and beaches open.
“I’ve just been struck by how right she has been,” said Julia Marcus, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School.
I was curious to know how Ms. Tufekci had gotten so many things right in a confusing time, so we spoke last week over FaceTime. She told me she chalks up her habits of mind in part to a childhood she wouldn’t wish on anyone.
Add those things to a skill at moving journalism and policy through a kind of inside game, and Ms. Tufekci has had a remarkable impact. But it began, she says, with growing up in an unhappy home in Istanbul. She said her alcoholic mother was liable to toss her into the street in the early hours of the morning. She found some solace in science fiction — Ursula K. Le Guin was a favorite — and in the optimistic, early internet.
In the mid-1990s, still a teenager, she moved out. Soon she found a job nearby as a programmer for IBM. She was an office misfit, a casually dressed young woman among the suits, but she fell in love with the company’s internal bulletin board. She liked it that a colleague in Japan wouldn’t know her age or gender when she asked a technical question.
She stumbled onto the wellspring of her career when she discovered an email list, the Zapatista Solidarity Network, centered on Indigenous activists in southern Mexico who had taken up arms against neoliberalism in general and land privatization imposed by the North American Free Trade Agreement in particular. For Ms. Tufekci, the network provided a community of digital friends and intellectual sparring partners.
Je suis pleinement d’accord avec cette analyse. Le 1 janvier 1994, à San Cristobal de Las casas, un nouveau monde militant naissait. Nous en mangeons encore les fruits.
Ms. Tufekci is the only person I’ve ever spoken with who believes that the modern age began with Zapatista Solidarity. For her, it was a first flicker of the “bottom-up globalization” that she sees as the shadow of capitalism’s glossy spread. She claims that her theory has nothing to do with how the movement affected her personally.
While many American thinkers were wide-eyed about the revolutionary potential of social media, she developed a more complex view, one she expressed when she found herself sitting to the left of Teddy Goff, the digital director for President Obama’s re-election campaign, at a South by Southwest panel in Austin in 2012.
Mr. Goff was enthusing about the campaign’s ability to send different messages to individual voters based on the digital data it had gathered about them. Ms. Tufekci quickly objected to the practice, saying that microtargeting would more likely be used to sow division.
More than four years later, after Donald J. Trump won the 2016 election, Mr. Goff sent Ms. Tufekci a note saying she had been right.
“At a time when everybody was being stupidly optimistic about the potential of the internet, she didn’t buy the hype,” he told me. “She was very prescient in seeing that there would be a deeper rot to the role of data-driven politics in our world.”
That optimism is part of what got her into the literature of pandemics. Ms. Tufekci has taught epidemiology as a way to introduce her students to globalization and to make a point about human nature: Politicians and the news media often expect looting and crime when disaster strikes, as they did when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005. But the reality on the ground has more to do with communal acts of generosity and kindness, she believes.
Public health officials seem to have had an ulterior motive when they told citizens that masks were useless: They were trying to stave off a run on protective gear that could have made it unavailable for the health care workers who needed it. Ms. Tufekci’s faith in human nature has led her to believe that the government should have trusted citizens enough to level with them, rather than jeopardize its credibility with recommendations it would later overturn.
“They didn’t trust us to tell the truth on masks,” she said. “We think of society as this Hobbesian thing, as opposed to the reality where most people are very friendly, most people are prone to solidarity.”
Now I find myself wondering: What is she right about now? And what are the rest of us wrong about?
An area where she might be ahead of the pack is the effects of social media on society. It’s a debate she views as worryingly binary, detached from plausible solutions, with journalists homing in on the personal morality of tech heads like Mark Zuckerberg as they assume the role of mall cops for the platforms they cover.
“The real question is not whether Zuck is doing what I like or not,” she said. “The real question is why he’s getting to decide what hate speech is.”
She also suggested that we may get it wrong when we focus on individuals — on chief executives, on social media activists like her. The probable answer to a media environment that amplifies false reports and hate speech, she believes, is the return of functional governments, along with the birth of a new framework, however imperfect, that will hold the digital platforms responsible for what they host.