April 19, 2014

Zeynep Tufekci is an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Her research revolves around the interaction between technology and society. Topics that interest her include new media and social movements, collective action, civic participation, sociality, privacy and public life. She has conducted and published research on a range of topics include media use of protesters in Tahrir square, online social networking and privacy and publicity behaviors of young adults and technology use by middle school students. She was previously a fellow at Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Her work at CITP will focus on the interaction between the rapid proliferation of social media and mechanisms of social change.

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My NYT Op-Ed: “Beware the Smart Campaign”

I just published a new opinion piece in the New York Times, entitled “Beware the Smart Campaign”. I react to the Obama campaign’s successful use of highly quantitative voter targeting that is inspired by “big data” commercial marketing techniques and implemented through state-of-the-art social science knowledge and randomized field experiments.  In the op-ed, I wonder whether the “persuasion score” strategy championed by Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager, is on balance good for democracy in the long run.

Mr. Messina is understandably proud of his team, which included an unprecedented number of data analysts and social scientists. As a social scientist and a former computer programmer, I enjoy the recognition my kind are getting. But I am nervous about what these powerful tools may mean for the health of our democracy, especially since we know so little about it all.

For all the bragging on the winning side — and an explicit coveting of these methods on the losing side — there are many unanswered questions. What data, exactly, do campaigns have on voters? How exactly do they use it? What rights, if any, do voters have over this data, which may detail their online browsing habits, consumer purchases and social media footprints?

You can read the full article here.

The argument in an op-ed is necessarily concise and leaves out much of the nuance but I think this is an important question facing democracies.  The key to my argument is that big data analytics + better social science isn’t just the same old, same old but poses novel threats to healthy public discourse.  I welcome feedback and comments as we are just starting to grapple with these new developments!

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If Reddit Really Regrets “Not Taking Stronger Action Sooner”, What Will It Do in the Future?

[Editors note: The New York Times weighed in with "When the Web’s Chaos Takes an Ugly Turn", which includes several quotes from Tufekci.]

Reddit may be the most important Internet forum that you have never heard of. It has more than a billion page-views a month, originates many Internet memes, brilliantly exposes hoaxes, hosts commentary on everything ranging from the trivial to the most serious–and it is the forum that President Barack Obama chose for his “ask me anything” session. Part of Reddit’s success has been due to it’s “live and let live” ethos in sub-forums, called “subreddits.” These sub-forums are created and moderated by volunteers with little or no interference from Reddit, whose parent company is the publishing conglomerate Condé Nast. This delegation approach facilitates Reddit’s business model, allowing it to operate with a comparatively small paid staff. However, the sub-forums that have flourished under this model are at times predatory and disturbing. For instance, “jailbait” was dedicated to sexually suggestive pictures of minors, and “creepshots” specialized in nonconsensual revealing photos of of women in public places–including infamous “upskirt” photos.

The brewing controversy came to a turning point last week after the infamous moderator of sub-forums “jailbait”, “creepshots”, “rape”, “incest”, and “PicsOfDeadKids” was outed by Gawker. The moderator, “Violentacrez”, was revealed to be 49-year-old computer programmer Michael Brutsch. Outing a person’s name, or “doxxing”, is one of the few things that Reddit bans outright. Thus, Reddit chose to ban all links to Gawker from the site, but later rescinded the decision. The issue has been taken up in high-profile Reddit forums like “politics” an “TIL” (“Today I Learned”). Michael Brutsch, meanwhile, lost his job.
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Introducing Myself: Technology, Society, and Public Policy

I’m a fellow at the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton this year. My first months here have already been amazing. I’m pleased to be joining this blog as well!

My conceptual toolkit and my method comes mostly from sociology, but I’m also a former computer programmer. That means that I feel welcome in a place where policy people and computer scientists collaborate. My interests revolve around how technology and society interact, and I’ve been enjoying having these conversations with many new people. I research a variety of topics concerning the social impacts of technology — things like social interaction, collective action, and privacy & publicity. I’m also enjoying teaching a course this Fall at the Woodrow Wilson School called “New Media and Social Movements: New Tools for an Old Game” (syllabus here – PDF).
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