Zeynep Tufekci: The amateur epidemiologist who keeps getting things right where most others fail

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By Ben Smith

When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told Americans in January that they didn’t need to wear masks, Dr. S. Vincent Rajkumar, a professor at the Mayo Clinic and the editor of the Blood Cancer Journal, couldn’t believe his ears.

But he kept silent until Zeynep Tufekci (pronounced ZAY-nep too-FEK-chee), a sociologist he had met on Twitter, wrote that the CDC had blundered by saying protective face coverings should be worn by health workers but not ordinary people.

“Here I am, the editor of a journal in a high profile institution, yet I didn’t have the guts to speak out that it just doesn’t makes sense,” Rajkumar told me. “Everybody should be wearing masks.”

Tufekci, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina’s School of Information and Library Science with no obvious qualifications in epidemiology, came out against the CDC recommendation in a March 1 tweetstorm before expanding on her criticism in a March 17 Op-Ed article for the The New York Times.

The CDC changed its tune in April, advising all Americans above the age of 2 to wear masks to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Michael Basso, a senior health scientist at the agency who had been pushing internally to recommend masks, told me Tufekci’s public criticism of the agency was the “tipping point.”

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. 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.

And the success of Tufekci and others like her at seeing clearly in our murky time represents a kind of revenge of the nerds, as outsiders from American politics and from Silicon Valley’s pressure to align money and ideology sometimes see what insiders don’t.

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 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.

“A bunch of things came together, which I’m happy I survived,” she said, sitting outside a brick house she rents for $2,300 a month in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where she is raising her 11-year-old son as a single parent. “But the way they came together was not super happy, when it was happening.”

These are, by her lights, the ingredients in seeing clearly:

— An international point of view she picked up while bouncing as a child between Turkey and Belgium and then working in the United States.

— Knowledge that spans subject areas and academic disciplines, which she happened onto as a computer programmer who got into sociology.

— A habit of complex, systems-based thinking, which led her to a tough critique in The Atlantic of America’s news media in the run-up to the pandemic.

Add those things to a skill at moving journalism and policy through a kind of inside game, and 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 Tufekci, the network provided a community of digital friends and intellectual sparring partners.

In 1998, she traveled to Chiapas, Mexico, and saw that the Zapatistas themselves were engaged in a traditional peasant uprising, the kind of thing that might have happened decades earlier. But now there was something new: the online global community around them. Perhaps because of a kind of egalitarian nerd ideology that has served her well, she never sought to meet the rebels’ charismatic leader, known as Subcomandante Marcos.

“I have a thing that fame and charisma screws with your head,” she said. “I’ve made an enormous effort throughout my life to preserve my thinking.”

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.

She got a PhD. from the University of Texas at Austin studying what she calls “techno-sociology” and became obsessed with how digital media could change society during the Twitter-fueled social movements of the late aughts — the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, Gezi Park in her native Turkey.

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 Barack Obama’s reelection campaign, at a South by Southwest panel in Austin in 2012.

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. Tufekci quickly objected to the practice, saying that microtargeting would more likely be used to sow division.

More than four years later, after Donald Trump won the 2016 election, Goff sent 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.”

Tufekci’s views on tech were not uncommon among the small group of sociologists focused on new technologies. But she delivered her skeptical take at a time when the social sciences and qualitative research had fallen out of fashion. The rise of digital was all about the numbers, and the Tech machers and their cheerleaders in academe were suspicious of anything that could not be quantified. Big data had elbowed out sociological observation.

Many tech journalists, entranced by the internet-fueled movements sweeping the globe, were slow to spot the ways they might fail, or how social media could be used against them. Tufekci, though, had “seen movement after movement falter because of a lack of organizational depth and experience, of tools or culture for collective decision making, and strategic, long-term action,” she wrote in her 2017 book, “Twitter and Tear Gas.”

That is, the same social-media savvy that hastened their rise sometimes left them “unable to engage in the tactical and decision-making maneuvers all movements must master to survive,” she wrote.

That’s a lesson many social movements have learned since those days, and this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests locked in some immediate political gains. Some in Silicon Valley are taking social science more seriously these days, too. Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey told me last fall that, if he had to do it all over again, he would have hired a social scientist to help design the service.

One of the things that makes Tufekci stand out in this gloomy moment is her lack of irony or world-weariness. She is not a prophet of doom, having hung on to an early-internet optimism that she shares with Craigslist founder Craig Newmark and a few others.

That optimism is part of what got her into the literature of pandemics. 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. 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.”

Tufekci’s new cause is ventilation; her vehicle is The Atlantic, which gave her a contract after she had contributed to The Times as a freelancer for many years. Ironically, just as the Times opinion department was tearing itself apart over the charge that amplifying a senator’s views could endanger protesters, the one writer who had certainly saved lives slipped out a side door. Her March column on masks was among the most influential The Times has published, although — or perhaps because — it lacked the edge that brings wide attention to an opinion piece.

Public health authorities are now listening to her. Two months after her Op-Ed article, Rajkumar and Tufekci took part in a conference call with World Health Organization officials who were concerned that people who had gotten in the habit of wearing masks would think they were safe and start behaving recklessly.

“No, listen, I’m a sociologist, I know that’s not true,” Tufekci told them.

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.

“It’s charmed that I get to do this, it feels good,” she said. “But in the ideal world, people like me are kind of superfluous, and we have these faceless nameless experts and bureaucrats who tell us: This is what you have to do.”





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