Internet and Society: Interview with Zeynep Tufekci

Zeynep Tufekci is an associate professor at the School of Information Library Science at the University of North Carolina and a faculty associate at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. She focuses on the impact of technology
and social media on society and politics. This interview was conducted on October 4, 2016. 


 Harvard Political Review: So, the first question I wanted to ask, from a sociological perspective, what do you see as the biggest change that the inter
net has caused in societal dynamics?

Zeynep Tufekci: There is obviously no one thing I could identify, but it has caused so much change. One of the most important ones is our ability to find and connect with each other has dramatically changed. In the past you may have been able to be on the phone with people you already knew, but it would have been much more difficult for you to find people with a particular view – maybe that was close to yours or maybe people to argue with – who were not geographically close or who were not already close or who were not already in your direct social network. And what we have seen right now with the internet is that it’s possible for ordinary people with nothing more than basic technology to find one another and keep in touch over long distances, to find and meet new kinds of people, and to encounter new kinds of thoughts, and also for people to organize and have a platform from which they can broadcast as a collective. In the 20th century that was basically a monopoly of mass media, and you could have that kind of speech if you owned a television station, that came in handy, or if you were important enough or already powerful enough to be interviewed on television. Whereas right now a group of citizens can organize and get their view or narrative across to millions of people with very little infrastructure. This has a big impact on social movements when, for instance, the Ferguson movement first started, the Ferguson protest that later became black lives matter movement, in the early days I would see lives streams of someone just holding of their phone with 400,000 views. The average nightly ratings of CNN is something like that, so you had some person on a street corner with a phone in the air having a similar reach as a major broadcast television that cost millions of dollars to own. That’s a major change that happened so fast in maybe the last 10 years that happened with smartphones and social media. It’s kind of amazing that we got used to it, if something happens we expect to see a live stream, we expect to see photographs. If we go online we expect to be able to find our middle school friends even if it’s been 20 years. Those things have happened just in the past decade or so in terms of becoming normalized to large numbers of people. Sorry I don’t have a quick this that.

HPR: So I read some of your articles on the idea of quasi-public spaces and this growing idea of a dissent tax. I wanted to ask: What do you see as the biggest challenges that the internet faces or negative ways it might be evolving?

ZT: One of the challenges is that we’ve seen an enormous amount of centralization. On the one hand, ordinary people have this impact with being able to broadcast. On the other hand, if you’re kicked off Facebook and Twitter, then you’re probably not going to be heard much. Or if their algorithms weed you out. Or if you’re working on a project or until recently people were being kicked off Facebook for breastfeeding pictures and things like that. For a lot of places around the world where people are just coming online, they don’t even have traditional strong mass media, so it’s Facebook or nothing. Facebook is the public sphere. And in such a place if Facebook’s algorithm is not friendly for you for some reason or in Facebook’s terms of service there’s some reason you can’t be on Facebook or if it’s not your legal name and you don’t want to use your legal name for a reason that would have enormous power over this ability to both connect with people and be part of civic life. I think we haven’t ever seen this level of centralizations in some ways. I mean of course we had in the mass media area we had the mass broadcast networks and there’s three of them and they shared, even though there were some differences among them, their ideologies were pretty similar and pretty much you could sort of put them in one place. And right now, if you’re not, if your first page of google searches are something horrible about you versus something neutral about you or something great about you, those three options can lead to drastically different lives, right. If your first pages of google searches are some criminal history for something minor, that will impact your ability to date, to get married, to have a job, all these things. And it’s just google, you know, it’s not like…there’s nothing you can really do against something like that – though in Europe they now have a right to delist – it’s an amazing about of power for a platform’s ranking algorithm, because that’s what google does, it takes thousands of pages and picks ten to put on the first page. And how it does that has this enormous impact on people’s life chances. And the fact that you can or cannot have control over it has enormous impact. So these are some of the issues I see especially as the scale goes up. You know a billion and a half people on Facebook, and there’s this great temptation business model wise just to use these algorithms to deal with all these difficult issues, because you can scale that up and that’s cheaper, except a lot of the issues you’re dealing with require nuance and understanding and grasping the complexity. So that’s the challenge, the business model, the centralizations, the challenges we face. And I don’t have an easy answer, to be quite honest. If you gave me a magic wand, there are some things I would definitely want but there are a lot of things where I’d say I’m not sure exactly what the answers is.

HPR: So one quote from what your articles that stood out to me was: “We must deal with the thorny issue of knowledge and how we know what we know.” How do you see the decline of print news?

ZT: So that’s another challenge. We were just having this conversation with the Academic Dean Archun Fung about how we had this fortunate era in which the journalism with an ethos of public service and some normative stance for truth happened to be subsidized by classified ads. Those didn’t have to go together as we’ve seen, and they have since become unbundled, and so we have lost the, we have increasingly losing, we’re increasingly losing these institutions that acted as gatekeepers and framers and conveners, and they were far from perfect, they had weaknesses and they had failings and when they had failings it could lead to disasters, but they also had the normative ethos, so when they failed it was failure. It’s being replaced by groups of many kinds and they don’t necessarily have the same ethos of objectivity and truth however troubled those concepts might have been they came with the social machinery to produce. They’re being replaced by partisanship and different set of ethos, not everything they say is incorrect, but for an ordinary person, it’s become like this big debate thing where one person says this one person says this and you’re supposed to dig through everything and figure it all out and claims and counterclaims are flying around and I think it’s for many ordinary people, it leads to a sense of resignation and withdrawal. Are you really going to educate the differences between factual claims that are quite opposite one another, so you know we really have to try to figure out if we can have new institutions that also won’t be perfect but focus on this verification and credibility and understanding what we know… a kind of journalism but do it for the digital era, for the internet era, so it’s more networked and more participatory in how it responds and more aware of the questioning of authority and that it’s going to be questioned, but allowed this sort of convening power of having a public space where we can at least share some framework upon which to build a politics. I think what’s happening is as you see just these clumps of people arguing over claims that are hard to judge for somebody without a lot of effort you’re just seeing this disintegration of the common ground and somebody wins and someone who loses doesn’t accept legitimacy and so it’s just leading to more and more break down. And once again it’s another thing that I do not have an answer but it needs resources and thinking and recognition that this is now missing or not missing yet but it’s weakening as an institution of democratic politics and liberal politics and without it it turns out you can’t really easily have liberal democratic politics because it just becomes a shouting match most people don’t even want to hear.

HPR: So do you see people moving to create those institutions?

ZT: I see more recognition of their loss. And the fact that it’s not going to be replaced by a billion people spending their evenings on the internet trying to figure out what’s what. What I see hopeful is recognition that putting all this burden on the shoulders of every individual sounds great on paper, just have an informed citizenry who’s just going to spend half their time on Wikipedia and half their time sort of searching for fact checks, and being replaced by the fact that no you can’t do it that way because people cannot function that way. What we can do is both try to build up people’s capacity to try to figure these things out, but we also really have to think what are our new institutions and how are they going to be funded. If they’re not going to be classifieds and ads, it could lead maybe subscriptions or an either an ethos of paying for things you read to philanthropy to taxation, to anything. Something to gather that gap that rebuilds conveners and farmers who have an ethos of public service. So are we moving in that direction? No. Is there more recognition that armies of informed citizens aren’t going to solve this problem? Yes.

HPR: In the long term if those institutions don’t evolve, how do you see that…?

ZT: Disintegration. I see disintegration and polarization. And in some countries we see that disintegration and polarization lead to a desire for a strong man, or usually man, a strong man that will bring order to what to most people must look like a chaotic difficult process and a nonfunctioning public. So that’s one possibility. A lot more people withdrawing, countries withdrawing from engaging, people just wanting “give me an answer” and get it done. Rather than, if you don’t have those institutions of deliberation, you can’t have a deliberative democracy. and if you don’t have a deliberative democracy and you already have this much polarization and mistrust in existing institutions, it was not surprising in such circumstances to see authoritarian and … what the correct word…it’s an idealized nostalgia. Some belief that there must have been a past that was better, or some law and order that was better, or maybe some…when we didn’t have this many voices it was better. I don’t think people know what exactly they really want, but they want something to bring some stability to what looks like everything solid melting, and that appeals, that creates an appeal towards strong men who are like strong men who say I will take care of this, but there’s not going to be that many voices, because that just create problems. And that’s another model of governance and that model I think is more popular now than people realized. It’s not that all the strongmen are just totally and absolutely ruling by repression, but also through a sense in a lot of people that this is better than the alternative or at least their resignation that something better is impossible.

HPR: In the U.S. do you see that trend at all in Donald Trump’s rise or not extreme enough?

ZT: Well, I mean clearly the fact that the republican nominee has these “I will take care of it, but won’t tell you the details” approach that can get a lot of votes is an indication of something. Rather than arguing on the basis of what exact policy he has these I’ll build walls I’ll make things strong it will be good we’ll win you’ll get tired of winning. You know these are very vague pronouncements and the only thing he has to back it up is “I’ll do it”, but that’s a form of authoritarian politics, this idea of this vague politics of strong measures without clarity on where is this going and how is this going. If you see interviews with supporters there’s some assumption that he’ll just negotiate something he’ll just do something, so it’s a way of delegating to him the authority to just do things and fix things, and so I guess that kind of a version of it, you see it around the world too, and I think it’s a response to this combination of distrust, a combination of feeling left behind, combination sometimes of having lost a kind of status that you had before, the fact that a lot of his supporters are high school graduate men for whom it’s become quite difficult in this country to have a career trajectory or for them to see a future for themselves that’s improving so these kinds…so I think those are similar trends to the global trends. But of course this is the U.S. so it’s not as strong as in some other places, we have a lot more politics and a lot more institutions, but would I put U.S. in the same group as those other countries, yeah, same sort of tensions.

HPR: In what countries do you see those…?

ZT: Just look at Hungry, look at Poland, look at Russia, there’s all these countries in which you can just sort of keep going. You see the rise of illiberal authoritarian but not unpopular, right there’s some popular support and it’s usually illiberal, there’s usually a strong man, and it’s usually backed by the idea that the strong man is going to take care of stuff and make things right and this lack of tolerance for dissent because it’s seen as just noise that’s just making this worse rather than dialogue that’s strengthening the country it seems like this thing that must not pass so you get the censorship and xenophobia also get support from the population, which I think is important to recognize. The idea that these are very unpopular policies is not true. They clearly have a social, political base and that to me is the interesting question, where is this base coming from and what can we do so that it doesn’t turn into a oh let’s just elect a majoritarian authority, or competitive authoritarian, as in once in awhile there’s a chance to vote you out so you’re kind of entrenched there. So how do we not go there? That’s a question and I think it’s quite linked to technological affordances that continue to hamper this conversation before. Not that it was perfect before. Don’t get me wrong I don’t have this idea that mass media was perfect or that previous institutions were perfect but having kind of thrown out the baby with the bathwater and not having replaced them with something better doesn’t turn out to be great either.

HPR: The other question I wanted to ask was: In what countries do you the internet greatest impact versus..?

ZT: Even if you’re part of the world there’s no internet you’re affected by it. Once the world’s an internet world, we’re all affected. Even if you’ve never picked up a smartphone the fact that you live in a world with smartphones has likely had an effect on your life might mean you’re left behind even more. The disadvantage might be greater it might mean your country has the protest movement. I think the effect has been so global and so significant and I mean at the moment even Afghanistan has even 80-90% phone penetration. I can’t really say which is more, in some way if I had to say more, it’s probably the countries that didn’t even have strong institutions, a strong democracy a strong technological infrastructure, for them it’s probably a bigger shift because even though it’s shaken up a lot in the united states you can image how much more it shook up a place like Myanmar that just went from authoritarianism to Facebook so probably a bigger impact on such countries but effect is Global.

HPR: Is there anything that we haven’t discussed that you think is really important for people to think about?

ZT: Well the thing that’s really important that we haven’t talked about at all and that I didn’t talk about in my talk is that we’re now seeing the first inklings of kinds of machine intelligence. And sometimes this is discussed in the framework of will they be as smart as humans or not and I think that’s not the significant framework. I mean it’s very interesting to ponder such questions, but the real question for me is are they strong enough, are they good enough, to be used in decision making. And the answer to that is yes. So whether or not they’re as smart as humans, I mean you can have a long philosophical argument about, but I think it’s less relevant to your everyday life than the question of we’re going to have machine intelligence being used to make decisions in all sorts of spheres, including hiring and firing and which college you get accepted into and what news you see on your social media feed or who…if the government decides you’re a terrorist. And there’s all these decisions that are being made by software by algorithms, sometimes machine learning algorithms, to bring into our sort of decision making sphere machine learning, which comes with all sort of issues, it does certain things in different ways it doesn’t operate like human intelligence and it does all these things and it’s just coming very fast at us. I’m seeing it in a lot of large companies being deployed in hiring and that’s becoming the very important gatekeeper, and where’s the discussion! There’s the technical people who are thinking oh can I do this better or can I do this faster and the political people tend think about the institutions, but they’ve kind of come together and it’s going to have such a huge impact in the next ten to twenty years, and if you think about it a lot… I mean everyone’s about the driverless cars and things like that, but they’re coming. Now imagine computation deciding whether you got into this school or not, and imagine that the process was completely opaque, and you had no idea what the decision making process was, and it resulted in this class rather than that class of people, huge impacts, down the line, and that’s the part that I….really want our current education to prepare people for that, because it really puts you into tech category or political social category, and if you take one you rarely take a class in the other or think about the other, but they have merged in actual life and they will have impacts. And I don’t think we’re done thinking through what’s coming down the path very fast at us. We didn’t talk about this but it’s the thing I wish everybody talked about more.

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