Zeynep Tufekci: How Do We Build Systems Of Trust Online? With so much data collected on our online behavior, it's bound to be misused. Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci says to rebuild trust in the internet, we need to entirely restructure how it operates.

Zeynep Tufekci: How Do We Build Systems Of Trust Online?

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ZEYNEP TUFEKCI: I mean, misinformation is certainly one of the big problems that we're all dealing with, but it's far from the only one.


This is Zeynep Tufekci. She's a sociologist who studies the ways technology impacts society, which today is, like, every possible way.

TUFEKCI: With the technology now, we have the infrastructure that can monetize, like, little snippets of our attention to try to grab it. Like, you know, your phone, it's almost like this Darwinian competition where all the apps are like, me, me, me, look at me, look at me, and they're all doing whatever they can to say, you know, turn on my notification. And if you turn them on, they're like, look at me, look at me, click on me, click on me because they make money by grabbing your attention and selling it to people or grabbing your attention and then recording your information.

ZOMORODI: Search online, like a photo, share a link - the stuff we do all day every day tells tech companies about our habits, our interests, our location, age, gender.

TUFEKCI: And if you have that much information on people, that information is going to be misused. Governments are going to go after it. It's going to be stolen and hacked. It's going to be used to blackmail people. It's going to be - rob people of their privacy. I mean, the idea that you can collect that much information on billions of people and not have it end up highly consequential in a negative way, that's just not true. The existence of that information is like radioactive waste. You have to do something with it. You have to not have it, ideally.

ZOMORODI: But data collection is how the web as we know it functions. It runs all our platforms and apps, and it's how tech companies make money. All that data collection, though, has also set up society for a whole host of issues.

TUFEKCI: The gig economy is a great example.

ZOMORODI: The gig economy, where companies use big data to decide wages and schedules.

TUFEKCI: Make Zeynep work from 10 to 3, 5 to 7.

ZOMORODI: Which is convenient for some.

TUFEKCI: You know, clean up 11 to 12 o'clock.

ZOMORODI: But for others, it's...

TUFEKCI: A brutal schedule.

ZOMORODI: Yeah, it kind of is.

TUFEKCI: It's terrible.

ZOMORODI: And then there are the algorithms, which decide, like, who gets insurance.

TUFEKCI: Where you're going to get hired.

ZOMORODI: Who gets a mortgage.

TUFEKCI: So they're making decisions.

ZOMORODI: Important decisions, but we don't know how they work.

TUFEKCI: Right. Algorithms that are being used for gatekeeping, that's a huge problem.

ZOMORODI: And, of course, there's mass surveillance.

TUFEKCI: Not just online, increasingly with sensors in the offline world. There are cameras everywhere. They're being linked to facial recognition systems.

ZOMORODI: And to some degree, we know all this, but we also know that we depend on these platforms. And we don't feel like we have much of a choice but to use them. I mean, I feel like we could go on and on with the issues, but the way that you have summed it up is to say that combined altogether, we're creating a low-trust society. What does that mean?

TUFEKCI: So we haven't built institutions of trust and verification into the digital infrastructure. What you have is basically, like, word of mouth and kind of your gut feeling and mostly frustration. So imagine a world in which instead of having food safety managed by government and companies and mandated - right? - we just throw you into a supermarket and say, hope you have a good chemistry lab in your basement.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

TUFEKCI: Hope you can tell if there's E. coli in your salad or if there's salmonella in your eggs. We don't do that, but that's exactly how we are doing things online. We throw people into the online world and we're like, buyer beware, hope you can figure out what's fake and what's real and what's misinformation and what's phishing and what's stealing your information. And good luck.


TUFEKCI: So what can we do? This needs to change.

ZOMORODI: In 2017, Zeynep Tufekci gave a TED talk.


TUFEKCI: Now, I can't offer a simple recipe because we need to restructure the whole way our digital technology operates.

ZOMORODI: I was in the audience that day, and actually I gave a talk at that same TED conference on how technology is changing the human experience. It's what I've been reporting on for the last decade. And at the time, there were some people who thought that Zeynep and I were being alarmist, but now lots of people are questioning the power of technology to influence everything, from how we spend our time to what we believe.

TUFEKCI: This is really a significant transition in human history. It's not the first one. It's probably not the last one, but it's just as significant as almost anything I can think of.

ZOMORODI: Our online lives have become our real lives. There's less and less distinction, but who decides what's right or wrong in this vast, virtual space? Can the same laws that govern nations apply to the borderless World Wide Web? Or is it just up to you to navigate this new era in human history? So today on the show - writing the rules for life online, figuring out how we can rebuild trust in the Internet. Many thanks to misinformation expert Claire Wardle and sociologist Zeynep Tufekci. You can find both of their talks at ted.com. You're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. Stay with us.

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