Zeynep Tufekci: Hi, every­one. It is a great plea­sure to be here. Thank you for invit­ing me. And I want to talk about two things. I want to talk about inclu­sion and cen­tral­iza­tion, and exclu­sion and decen­tral­iza­tion. So, a lot of times these con­ver­sa­tions revolve around Facebook. And it’s not just because Facebook is the biggest plat­form there is for these things. But it real­ly is the best exam­ple of sort of these dual trends.

To give a lit­tle bit of back­ground on how impor­tant Facebook is, I’d urge you, espe­cial­ly if you’re tech­ni­cal­ly com­pe­tent and you run your own Linux and you’re very good at mul­ti­ple plat­forms and dif­fer­ent things, to step out­side that box and think of inclu­sion glob­al­ly. Where there are many people—billions of peo­ple, in fact—for whom tasks that might seem intu­itive and obvi­ous to you are not. On the tech­ni­cal­ly more com­pe­tent, or peo­ple who’ve been using these plat­form for a longer time, or com­put­ers for a longer time, we tend to under­es­ti­mate what it means to have some­thing usable. I work with peo­ple around the world all the time, and a lot of times even the simplest—you know, where is the search bar ver­sus the URL bar… Those are confusing.

So, a cou­ple of major plat­forms like Facebook and Twitter, YouTube, have become in many places around the world a de fac­to pub­lic sphere. Especially in coun­tries that have less than free Internet, less than free mass media. And these coun­tries have tran­si­tioned from a very con­trolled pub­lic sphere to a commercially-run one like Facebook, but [one] open to most peo­ple in the space of a few years. So that’s the con­text. Once again, I wor­ry about these things not just in the United States or the United Kingdom where there are a lot of issues with the mass media sys­tem, but it’s noth­ing like a place like Turkey, which I’m from. Or Burma, which has tran­si­tioned into a more demo­c­ra­t­ic state in just a cou­ple of years, which I’ll use as an exam­ple. So these are the kind of places we’re talk­ing about.

So to explain this con­flict, I’m going to talk about an exam­ple from the United States that hap­pened a cou­ple of years ago that shows how the inclusion/exclusion dynam­ics work. Now, on Facebook as you might have heard, it’s a com­mon dis­cus­sion— There is a dynam­ic called net­work effects;” some­times peo­ple call it net­work exter­nal­i­ties.” And these refer to the idea that if you have say, a fax machine and you want to fax peo­ple, some­thing that’s com­pat­i­ble is the one you’re going to use. So if you want to mes­sage peo­ple, you’re going to mes­sage them on the plat­form they’re on—if they’re on Facebook you’re going to mes­sage them on Facebook. So that has real­ly led to a huge amount of growth.

But that’s not the only thing. It’s also quite usable and easy to access. But it’s a com­mer­cial plat­form. It’s the pub­lic sphere, but it’s run to sell ads. Which means that there are all sorts of deci­sions that go into it that medi­ate what you get to see. And in par­tic­u­lar on Facebook, it’s run by the news updates that you see from your friends, from your fam­i­ly, from acquain­tances, from pages you fol­low. They are pri­or­i­tized and picked by an algo­rithm that Facebook sets, often changes, and decides what to do with. And this algo­rithm of course is meant to increase—as far as they’re telling us, and I believe it—to increase engage­ment” on the site, which means to keep you there. A lot of consequences. 

So I’m going to show you guys a pic­ture. On August 13, 2014, I was on Twitter one qui­et evening, and I was look­ing at news com­ing from a small protest in Ferguson, Missouri in the United States. For the year before that, or two years before that, there had been a lot of social media noise vol­un­tar­i­ly made by peo­ple who were try­ing to ini­ti­ate a move­ment which has since—we call it Black Lives Matter, but at the begin­ning it was kind of just peo­ple dis­cussing var­i­ous cas­es that weren’t get­ting a lot atten­tion. And one of the first ones I noticed was the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida, where the killer was­n’t even tried in court, and there were a lot of pub­lic­i­ty efforts around that on social media for weeks. And then it got some mass media, and there was a tri­al, even though there was­n’t conviction.

So on August 13 about a year after that, there was anoth­er news, a very sad one. An African American teenag­er had been shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri. And there had just been tor­na­does in the area a cou­ple of days before. And a cou­ple of jour­nal­ists were near­by, so they went.

So in Ferguson, this com­mu­ni­ty was angry that anoth­er young man had been shot. And his body had been just left there for hours. They were upset, they were griev­ing. And they start­ed hav­ing these small-scale protests. And this is kin­da like sub­ur­ban US, right. 

Tweets, Zeynep Tufecki, August 13, 2014, at 6:13 PMand 8:27 PM

So, the jour­nal­ists go there. There are these protests. And this is what we start­ed see­ing on Twitter. This is like armored vehi­cles, snipers. I put up my tweets but there are a cou­ple of these jour­nal­ists, and they’re just sort of tak­ing these pic­tures. And I start­ed retweet­ing, as you can see. It was­n’t much but I was like, What is going on?”

I have a lot of friends around the world, espe­cial­ly in a lot of more repres­sive countries,and they were like, Zeynep, are those pic­tures from Bahrain or some­place else? What’s going on?” And my friends in Egypt were talk­ing about this. And there was this huge amount of dis­cus­sion of this protest on my Twitter time­line, which is not algo­rith­mi­cal­ly medi­at­ed. It’s just chronological.

So I went over to Facebook, where I have a lot of friends. And I said alright, what are my friends there see­ing? What is going on? They weren’t talk­ing about it. Okay…maybe my friends on Facebook don’t care about this.

I went back to Twitter, and I saw that all my friends, it seemed, were talk­ing about it. It was just com­plete­ly con­sum­ing the con­ver­sa­tion. You know how you have some big news event, or Olympics or some­thing, and every­body’s talk­ing about it? That’s how it felt. I’d go to Facebook…nobody cares. Maybe I have the wrong kind of friends on Facebook, you know? You just won­der. You go to Twitter, it’s all there.

But I don’t real­ly have dif­fer­ent friends on Facebook. I have more fam­i­ly, you know, acquain­tances. So I switched my Facebook feed to chrono­log­i­cal. Which Facebook does­n’t want to let you do, because it wants to con­trol that feed, which is your eye­balls, which is your atten­tion, which in this day and age of atten­tion being the key resource is cru­cial. It wants to keep you there, it wants to con­trol that.

When I switched to chrono­log­i­cal, I saw that my friends were talk­ing about it, but Facebook was­n’t show­ing it to me. Back to Twitter, it’s all Ferguson. Switch to Facebook, if I force it chrono­log­i­cal it’s Ferguson, Ferguson. But boom, it keeps com­ing back. Because Facebook switch­es it back to the out group. 

So I said wait, what’s going on? And I start­ed ask­ing around on Twitter, which is where I could ask. There were hun­dreds, maybe thou­sands of posts, of peo­ple who were com­plain­ing about this. They were like, Why isn’t…why aren’t I see­ing this on Facebook? Why is this huge news not there?” So I just kept going back and forth for the evening.

So what hap­pened was that instead of show­ing us this news, Facebook was show­ing us the Ice Bucket Challenge of August 2014. Do you remem­ber that? It was a good thing. People were dump­ing buck­ets of ice water on them­selves and chal­leng­ing each oth­er to donate to ALS char­i­ty. And they were doing this by tag­ging peo­ple and record­ing video. These are all things Facebook’s algo­rithm likes. Especially—it’s changed a lit­tle bit since then, but at the time you could only Like some­thing. Right now you can do a heart, or you can do tears, which are a lit­tle more range of options. How do you Like the one on the left side? How do you like that? It’s not a lik­able story.

I saw this again and again. I work on refugee sup­port, and I come across a lot of heart­break­ing pieces of news and media. If I post them, they don’t real­ly get around—they’re not lik­able. The switch to heart and cries has helped. Which shows you how impor­tant these deci­sions are.

So lat­er, because of anoth­er con­tro­ver­sy on Facebook trend­ing top­ics, which is dif­fer­ent than what I’m talk­ing about, News Feed, they pub­lished some inter­nal guide­lines with some demo tools. And by coin­ci­dence, they hap­pened to have a shot of that week’s data— Not by coin­ci­dence. Obviously that was some­thing they were wor­ried about, too, because it got atten­tion. And it showed yes, ALS Ice Bucket Challenge had drowned out the Ferguson news. 

About three to four mil­lion tweets were sent before either mass media or Facebook’s algo­rithm would acknowl­edge what was going on. This real­ly makes me won­der have we ever had a choke point of cen­tral­iza­tion that con­trolled what a bil­lion and a half peo­ple might see in this round­about way, in which they don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly con­trol what you’re going to see but they con­trol the game on which we play to see what you will see. They set the rules. And their rules at the moment are engage­ment. Which means also viral­i­ty. Which means we have stud­ies show­ing now (It’s hard to study because you don’t even see it. Facebook has the data.) that fake news, out­ra­geous news, angry claims—or very heart-warming stories—are what goes viral.

Now, this you’re going to say is human nature, peo­ple like this. This is very true. People like these things. People like to feel bet­ter. They seek views them­selves. But we have a feed­back loop in which what peo­ple are kind of lean­ing towards is shoved at them very fast. 

So with Ferguson, what had hap­pened was also a feed­back loop. Because it was hard to Like the Ferguson news, the algo­rithm showed it to few­er peo­ple, which led to few­er expo­sures, which led to few­er peo­ple being able to com­ment on it, which led to this algo­rith­mic spi­ral of silence. 

We have the oth­er things. We have for example—right now in the United States I see this every day, false sto­ries about preva­lence of vote fraud are going viral on Facebook all the time. Because they’re out­ra­geous. They’re false, but they’re out­ra­geous. And this is fuel­ing peo­ple orga­niz­ing themselves—vigilantes—to show up at the polls to mon­i­tor” in inner cities.” Meaning they are going to go harass black peo­ple try­ing to vote. This is 2016.

Now, you might think you know, this is kin­da exag­ger­at­ed. Is this real­ly going to hap­pen? In Burma, we tran­si­tioned from a very closed pub­lic sphere in which the mil­i­tary con­trolled every­thing to one of the fastest dig­i­tal expan­sions. Everybody has some sort of fea­ture phone or smart­phone and some kind of access.

We have had Facebook posts— Facebook is the pub­lic sphere. We have had instances of out­ra­geous, hor­ri­ble, obvi­ous­ly false claims of the grow­ing Muslim minor­i­ty appar­ent­ly do— You know, it’s the kind of things you see in eth­nic cleans­ing sit­u­a­tions. Claims they kill babies or they do these hor­ri­ble things, that have led to these kinds of hate speech going viral in a con­text of eth­nic cleav­ages where we don’t have inter­me­di­ary insti­tu­tions and hun­dreds of years of state-building. And they have led to hun­dreds of deaths in the past few years. And the biggest refugee out­flow in the region. And maybe third or fourth in the world right now, because there are so many refugee out­flows. This is…I mean, I know, open and con­nect­ed and inclu­sive sounds great. But it comes with all these things. It comes with Facebook’s abil­i­ty to both choke a piece of news. But it also comes with its abil­i­ty to spread and not choke these things that pre­vi­ous gate­keep­ers might’ve not spread so much. Or they might’ve. This is a very impor­tant inflec­tion point.

I gave you one sto­ry of Facebook sup­press­ing, and one sto­ry of Facebook not sup­press­ing. Because I don’t want to sound like there is an easy way to do this. I don’t want to say Facebook should just you know, cen­sor this kind of hate speech and not cen­sor that kind of thing, because this is not…we’re talk­ing a bil­lion and a half peo­ple there. It should do a lot more, but it should cen­sor noth­ing, it should sup­press noth­ing,” is not an answer because some­thing’s going to be shown. There’s going to be choic­es made. There’s no escap­ing the dif­fi­cult choices.

So, I want to show you guys one more thing from my own per­son­al feed, which is why go to alter­na­tive sites” is not going to work. This is a post I had— I just came from Turkey. This is my grand­moth­er. She’s doing fine now. She had a stroke, I was real­ly wor­ried. Just before com­ing here I flew there. I post­ed on Facebook this lit­tle update. I was able to con­nect, using this, to rel­a­tives and acquain­tances who mobi­lized to help her and sup­port her at this time. That there is no oth­er tools that I can even imag­ine… A lot of these peo­ple, they don’t email. They do not have any email. They might’ve had an email that some­body set up for them to set up Facebook, but if I said, Can I have your email?” they’re like, Uh, my phone num­ber?” Like, No, your email. Can you Facebook friend me?”

And there are dozens of dozens of peo­ple like that in my sort of rel­a­tives and acquain­tances. So I would­n’t have been able to orga­nize this had I not had a tool that had this much cen­tral­iza­tion behind it. I’m throw­ing out these things to com­pli­cate it. I can get off Facebook. That is not the ques­tion. The ques­tion is how do we cre­ate alter­nate ways of doing these things? So the way Twitter played a role in push­ing Ferguson in spite of Facebook. That we have ways of get­ting around choke points.

But how do we also deal with the fact that when you have no choke points, like Burma—I don’t know if Facebook’s check­ing what’s going on, I don’t know how much staff they have. It’s a lit­tle coun­try. They have lots of coun­tries. It’s just one lit­tle coun­try. But you have the sort of eth­nic cleans­ing sit­u­a­tion going on. So if they don’t do some­thing to put their thumbs on scales one way or another—which they are going to do it, one way or another—that’s not an answer, either. 

I don’t think we have you know, let’s just cre­ate decen­tral­ized things” as an easy option. But I don’t think we also are going towards a very healthy world, because our cen­tral­ized options are all ad-financed, encour­ag­ing viral­i­ty, clickability…which is encour­ag­ing polar­iza­tion, false news, out­rage, or the feel-good stuff. That’s why you have a lot of babies on your feed, and that’s why you have here in England a lot of Brexit fights on your feed. Both of them attract eye­balls, which is what Facebook is selling. 

So I’m going to sort of open it up to ques­tions, because I don’t have a con­clu­sion. I have a lot of ques­tions. But I feel, giv­en the lev­el of com­bi­na­tion of both elite fail­ure and these dynam­ics com­ing up in the world that are shak­ing mul­ti­ple coun­tries, how do we orga­nize our pub­lic sphere to encour­age health­i­er, inclu­sive behav­iors rather than just out­rage or feel-good? It prob­a­bly is one of the most impor­tant ques­tions we face right now, so we’ll take ques­tions for the remain­der of the time. And I wel­come oth­er ways of con­tact­ing me. I did put my email.

Audience 1: There are a lot of big mass-market brand adver­tis­ers that don’t just want to reach a nation­al­ist niche or a spe­cif­ic side of an argu­ment. What are big com­pa­nies that put mon­ey into Facebook adver­tis­ing doing about hav­ing their brands asso­ci­at­ed with this kind of speech?

Zeynep Tufekci: Well, I think they can tar­get many dif­fer­ent groups. Obviously, it’s true both on Facebook and Twitter, towards more free­wheel­ing, which means some adver­tis­ers don’t like that as much. I think for many of them, they’re… I mean, if you’re Coca-Cola, you prob­a­bly care about it as much. But if you’re adver­tis­ing say in a coun­try like Turkey or India or Burma, I don’t think it’s an imped­i­ment. I don’t think that’s prob­lem. And also what you can do is you can just seg­ment your audi­ences. And we live with adver­tis­ing. I think it just seems to be a fact of life, because peo­ple are there and there you are.

Audience 2: Hi, I’m inter­est­ed in whether you think it’s pri­mar­i­ly a tech­nol­o­gy solu­tion or a [tool?] solution.

Tufecki: Okay, so this is a multi-level prob­lem. We absolute­ly need more resources and alter­na­tive tech­nolo­gies, because right now—because of net­work effects, there are no real mar­ket con­straints on Facebook. You’re not going out­com­pete it by itself. So we should try to make sure there are alter­na­tives that peo­ple could use that put some mar­ket pres­sure on Facebook. So that’s one thing we should do. And it’s not just Facebook. This is true for those few big platforms—for Twitter, for Google and YouTube. So alter­na­tives are important.

I think push­ing, sort of com­pli­cat­ing, or I guess look, I got on the Internet when it came to Turkey. Like, I was one of the first few users. I loved it. It opened up my world, and I thought, like Mark Zuckerberg says right now, open and con­nect­ed is great. It is much more com­pli­cat­ed than that, as we’ve come to see. There’s no idea that if we open every­thing up and make con­nec­tion just pos­si­ble only good things are going to hap­pen. So we need to com­pli­cate how we think about con­nec­tion and inclu­siv­i­ty, and bring more nor­ma­tive val­ues besides includ­ing peo­ple” into the con­ver­sa­tion. Because includ­ing you know, white suprema­cist so that they can go viral, so that they can go harass black vot­ers, is also a form of inclu­sion but you have to say inclu­sion by itself is not the only val­ue. It has to be paired with all the oth­er things we’re bal­anc­ing, includ­ing oth­er peo­ple’s right to exist.

So there’s that. And there’s also resource prob­lems here. Because if we’re going to address these things, the way we do a lot of things on the Internet is a mer­ry band of vol­un­teer geeks come togeth­er and type up some stuff. And it’s great, and it does some things. But minor things like down­time means you’re nev­er going to be inclu­sive enough to be an alter­na­tive, which requires resources. So there’s a multi-level, I think, answer. 

And final­ly, the final answer is real­ly a new way of grap­pling with the ques­tion, What does hap­pen if bil­lions of peo­ple are con­nect­ed?” I think we just start­ed ask­ing that ques­tion, and some of the answers are not as pret­ty and sort of rosy as we might’ve thought when this start­ed. And I include myself in the sort of evolving [?].

Audience 3: Hi. I was won­der­ing how you would talk about fold­ing in how the ad struc­ture and some of the fea­tures of Facebook allow for a monetarily-based form of sup­pres­sion. Recently they’ve been report­ing on how ads have have been specif­i­cal­ly avoid­ing tar­get­ing black and poor­er vot­ers, as well as there being dark ad cam­paigns to sup­press votes.

Tufecki: So, thank you very much for that ques­tion. The oth­er thing this pub­lic sphere allows— And I wrote this in 2012 on the Obama cam­paign, which had used sort of sophis­ti­cat­ed vot­er tar­get­ing. And I said wait, sophis­ti­cat­ed vot­er tar­get­ing? In a pri­vate place where you don’t see what oth­er peo­ple can see? Means that a cam­paign could come and tar­get hate speech to peo­ple who are recep­tive to it, and nobody else sees it. Because if it’s on TV, it’s hor­ri­ble to have hor­ri­ble things on TV. But at least it’s there to be pub­licly chal­lenged and countered. 

And so I wor­ried about this kind of silent, pri­vate but wide­spread hate speech or oth­er sort of incite­ment being used by polit­i­cal cam­paigns. And I wrote this in the con­text of [2012]—Obama’s elec­tion. A lot of my friends were like, We like Obama.” I said it does­n’t mat­ter. This is not Thor’s ham­mer, that only the purest of heart can pick up, right? This isn’t going to work that way. And I got a lot of flack from my friends who had worked on Obama’s cam­paign, and who were data sci­en­tists. And they said, No no, this will be our tool.” 

Well, enter 2016 and ProPublica just pub­lished this thing that shows that on Facebook you can lit­er­al­ly seg­ment so that you can exclude African Americans—or any oth­er ethnicity—from your ad tar­get­ing. Now, this is what hap­pens when engi­neers do not talk to oth­er peo­ple while say­ing Let’s put more selec­tors out there. Isn’t this great?” No, it’s not. It’s ille­gal if it’s hous­ing, and it can do all sort of oth­er hor­ri­ble things. If it’s a job ad, can you imag­ine? Here’s a job ad, but don’t show it to these eth­nic­i­ties. Housing ad, don’t show it. Or, here’s a let’s orga­nize vot­er pro­tec­tion” (which is actu­al­ly let’s go harass black peo­ple at the polls”), but only tar­get white people.

All of this had been pos­si­ble until now. And it would’ve been pri­vate. So this is anoth­er thing. I had sug­gest­ed that there be a cen­tral­ized depos­i­to­ry where Facebook lets us know who tar­get­ed whom. It is so impor­tant that yes, they’re not going to com­mer­cial­ly tell us I got this or you got that, but they can do cer­tain things. And I think the fact that such a sim­ple thing—you do not allow this kind of exclu­sion for cer­tain kinds of ads—passed by them, shows that they espe­cial­ly need to do it.

But. Last thought: with enough data on you, I do not need to know your race, as a cat­e­go­ry, to deduce your prob­a­ble race, using prox­ies. So even if Facebook cleans this up—which they will, because it’s illegal—it is absolute­ly pos­si­ble to use com­pu­ta­tion­al infer­ence to do some­thing like adver­tise only to black women who are feel­ing depressed these days” some snake oil solu­tions, with­out using black or depressed as direct selec­tors. Because with enough data you can tell these things.

So not only is this new pub­lic sphere cen­tral­ize and choke­hold, it has— The past one was tele­vi­sion, base­ball bat kind of bang­ing you on the head and you went ow.” It was crude. Right now we have a scalpel that can do exclu­sion in tar­get­ing in all sorts of ways that it could­n’t. And maybe there are advan­tages to not hav­ing this much pre­cise pow­er in the hands of peo­ple with pow­er and mon­ey already. So that’s… I mean, it’s a great extra lay­er of dif­fi­cult ques­tions to deal with.

Further Reference

MozFest 2016 web site