Zeynep Tufekci tried to tell us.
She tried to tell us in November 2012, just after Barack Obama beat out Mitt Romney for a second term as president of the United States. Obama's win was credited in part to a sophisticated online campaign that used heaps of data on millions of Americans to target digital efforts for maximum impact—something that happened out of sight of government regulators and the public eye.
She tried to tell us that this was a bad precedent.
"The scalpels, on the other hand, can be precise and effective in a quiet, un-public way," Tufekci wrote in a New York Times op-ed. "They take persuasion into a private, invisible realm. Misleading TV ads can be countered and fact-checked. A misleading message sent in just the kind of e-mail you will open or ad you will click on remains hidden from challenge by the other campaign or the media."
Almost five years later, that paragraph in particular stands out. A growing pile of evidence shows that Russia saw what Tufekci saw—and acted on it. Now, Tufekci has emerged as one of the strongest voices pushing Facebook, Google, Twitter, and the tech industry at large to reckon with what they've built and how it's used.
Tufekci, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina's School of Information and Library Science, refers to herself as a "technosociologist," studying how technology affects social movements around the world. Born in Istanbul, Turkey, Tufekci started out as a computer programmer before she became fascinated with how technology impacts society. Her recent book, Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, is required reading for people trying to understand how social media went from fueling the Arab Spring to muddying a U.S. election.
Tufekci has written for the New York Times since 2012, but has become a particularly important fixture in the past few months with hard-hitting editorials on Facebook's role in the 2016 U.S. election and the Equifax hack.
From her recent Facebook op-ed:
For those of us who are tolerant of a wide range of ideas and arguments, but would still like deception and misinformation to not have such an easy foothold in society, Mr. Zuckerberg’s comments do not inspire hope. Indeed, people across the political spectrum should be able to agree that not making it so easy, and so lucrative, for fake news to spread widely is better for all of us, since fake news isn’t necessarily a right-wing phenomenon. But since Facebook has no effective competition, we can look forward only to being lectured on being more tolerant of “ideas” we don’t like, and to smug talk of the false equivalency of “both sides.”
Like no other public intellectual, Tufekci has captured the moment, but she isn't an academic in an ivory tower. She's a near-constant presence on Twitter, where she mixes it up with tech industry folks, taking them to task for downplaying the roles that massive tech companies have in what occurs on their platforms.
A revealing exchange featuring a sociologist (Zeynep) & the head of Facebook's News Feed (Adam). On the logic & architecture of "engagement" http://pic.twitter.com/1Z59dHtkGm
— Hamza Shaban (@hshaban) October 27, 2017
Central to Tufekci's work is her rebuttal of what social media and tech companies have pushed for years—that they are neutral players just giving people what they want.
This notion has underpinned the rise of Facebook, Twitter, and Google, while providing them with cover. Until recently, these companies have been able to claim that they're not responsible for the content on their platforms—or how it spreads. That has helped them avoid regulation, lawsuits, and general scrutiny.
Tufekci has been railing against the notion that these platforms are passive actors for some time now. And with all three companies starting to admit that, yes, they do have a responsibility for what happens on their platforms, Tufekci's work is getting the broader attention it deserves.
It is inevitable that social norms will catch up to legislating Facebook eventually. When it happens Zeynep's name will figure prominently
— Tressie Mc (@tressiemcphd) October 28, 2017
Tufekci isn't done issuing warnings. In a recent TED Talk, she broke down the threats people face from massive tech companies that profit off user data and the prospect of their use by nefarious governments.
"We need a digital economy where our data and our attention is not for sale to the highest bidding authoritarian or demagogue," she said.
It's a chilling warning. Tufekci has told us before, and she's telling us again. Maybe this time we'll listen.