Zeynep Tufekci shares insights on Equifax breach and Facebook scandal

September 26, 2017

Zeynep Tufekci, Associate Professor at the UNC School of Information and Library Science (SILS), continues to be a go-to source for media outlets looking for insights on the impact of social media and the growing influence of machine algorithms. Headlines dominating the September news cycle lent themselves well to her expertise.   

SILS Associate Professor
Zeynep Tufekci

On Sept. 11, 2017, the New York Times published Tufekci’s op-ed on the Equifax security breach, titled “Equifax’s Maddening Unaccountability.” Reflecting on the breach, in which over 143 million Americans’ personal data might have been stolen, Tufekci pointed out that that, “The Equifax executives who let my data be stolen will probably suffer fewer consequences than I will for an overdue library book.”

Additionally, Tufekci was invited to NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday on Sept. 16 to discuss the Equifax breach further. She explained that the punishment the executives responsible for the breach will receive is disproportionate to the severity of the issue, and that they aren’t handling U.S. citizens well because they view them as a product, not as a customer. “They're taking our data, and they're selling it to others,” Tufekci said. “So they really don't care about us.”

When Facebook revealed that it may have sold ads to Russian companies aimed at getting Trump elected, Tufekci weighed in on the scandal with a Sept. 23 New York Times op-ed. titled “Facebook’s Ad Scandal Isn’t a ‘Fail,’ It’s a Feature.” “The trouble is Facebook’s business model is structurally identical whether advertisers are selling shoes, politics or fake diet pills, and whether they’re going after new moms, dog lovers or neo-Nazis,” Tufekci wrote. “Our attention and eyeballs are sold to the highest bidders, whatever they may be peddling.”

Slate interviewed Tufekci for information on the Facebook ad scandal as well, with Tufekci saying that the issue, while probably not the largest vector from the 2016 election, should still be seriously considered because it “exposes certain fault lines that I think people have not been paying attention to before: The way that you can peddle conspiracy theories the same way you can peddle shoes, and the fact that the platform is built for virality.”

Tufekci was also cited in an article by the Washington Post on Facebook’s ad scandal, reacting to the company’s delay in investigating the impact of their advertising system on the 2016 US election by saying, “Given the scale of the misinformation campaign, it’s pretty obvious that ads would be a vector. They are an ad company.”

In Thrive Global’s piece on new technology being developed, Tufekci commented on the possibility that new facial scanning technology unveiled with the iPhone X could allow Apple or other organizations “to identify protestors, to figure out if you’re depressed or manic—and how to monetize that.”

Tufekci gave a live TED Talk in late September on the intersection of politics, machine learning, and online business models. While Tufekci said she was excited to see so many people interested in the topic, she also said “the technology is advancing so fast, and our politics is so broken, that I am not sure what the plausible mechanism is to keep up with it, to try to mitigate the downsides as best we can while embracing that which supports human goals. But we must try.” [The talk was recorded but has not yet been posted online].

Back home in Chapel Hill, Tufekci attended a Meet the Author tea hosted by the Friends of Chapel Hill Public Library on Sept. 22. There, Tufekci discussed her new book, Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, with community members.

-Summary by Chrissy Murphy, SILS Communications Assistant