‘Getting the big things right’

With social science insights and a global perspective, Carolina’s Zeynep Tufekci helps clarify the COVID-19 big picture.

Zeynep Tufekci on the TED Talk stage.
Zeynep Tufekci speaks at TEDGlobal NYC, Sept. 20, 2017. (Photo: Ryan Lash/TED)

Zeynep Tufekci is not an epidemiologist. She’s a social scientist whose work focuses on the intersection of society and technology.

That work has taken her to the middle of social movements all over the world. Last winter, it took her to the front of the media sphere as Americans awaited the oncoming coronavirus pandemic.

An associate professor at the UNC School of Information and Library Science and principal researcher with Carolina’s Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life, Tufekci was already a well-known and often quoted source on topics related to digital technology, politics, social media and artificial intelligence.

Even though she was used to talking to the media, Tufekci says speaking out on issues related to COVID-19 took things to a different level. News outlets haven’t stopped calling since, turning to her for insights on everything from mask wearing to how the virus is spread.

Zeynep on stage giving a public talk

Zeynep Tufekci speaking at The Big Challenge Science Festival in Trondheim, Norway, June 19, 2019. (Photo: Kai T. Dragland/NTNU, The Big Challenge Science Festival)

They call because of her knack for “getting the big things right,” as the New York Times wrote last fall — right not only in regards to COVID-19, but also in her previous analyses of Twitter’s impact on social movements, media coverage of school shootings and the risks of radicalization via YouTube.

Her decision to address the pandemic in her writing emerged from her frustration with the silence she saw surrounding the virus.

“We were lacking information, lacking articles. I thought, ‘Why isn’t anyone saying anything?’” says Tufekci. “I knew it was a risk, but I was going to speak up, even if it cost me, because we needed to get ready. I’ve researched extensively human and social behavior in Hong Kong and South Korea. I saw how they dealt with SARS. I have a pretty good knowledge base about infectious diseases. I knew immediately — we need tests, we need masks.”

Nearly a year ago, on Feb. 27, 2020, she published a blog for Scientific American (“Preparing for Coronavirus to Strike the U.S.”) with common-sense advice on how Americans could prepare households and amend lifestyles for a virus that was spreading quickly.

The blog went viral — collecting among its acknowledgements a retweet from Hillary Clinton — and garnered praise for its recommendations on “flattening the curve” of the crisis “so the more vulnerable can fare better, so that our infrastructure will be less stressed at any one time.”

She wrote a New York Times op-ed in March that challenged statements from the World Health Organization (WHO) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that said masks weren’t helpful. Her public criticism was reportedly the tipping point that convinced the CDC to change its stance in April.

In May, Tufekci joined with over 100 experts — including two Nobel laureates and the editors-in-chief of Nature and The Lancet — to sign an open letter to all U.S. governors, asking them to require cloth masks be worn in public. Tufekci and Jeremy Howard, a research scientist at the University of San Francisco, explained the reasoning behind the letter in a USA Today column, which became the #1 op-ed published by the paper that week.

For the Atlantic, which brought Tufekci on as a contributing writer in 2019, she wrote about the role of ventilation and the behavior of COVID-19 clusters before those points were incorporated into how the CDC made recommendations. She also publicly pushed back on those who shamed people for visiting parks and beaches.

“I saw major trusted scientific organizations saying masks didn’t work, and they actually helped spread the disease. This was wrong,” she says. “You also had them telling us to stay off beaches and out of parks when outside was probably the safest place to be. There was a big problem here that was bound to backfire — you can’t tell people what they can’t do and also feed them incorrect information about what to do.”

Her work has had a measurable influence on scientists and policy makers as the virus has played out across the world, making it to the desk of Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and getting her face-to-face (virtually) with the WHO.

Tufekci has continued advancing the pandemic discussion in 2021 with a New York Times op-ed blasting vaccination red tape and co-authorship of a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The article, which examines mask use to impede the spread of the virus, debuted on Pre-Print in 2020, and has registered more than 365,000 views and 88,000 downloads.

Originally from Turkey, and formerly a computer programmer, Tufekci has spent her career crossing disciplines and using complex systems thinking, as well as traveling worldwide to study systems of power and social movements. This helped shape her ability to see ahead of the pandemic and think through how everyday Americans, as well as government agencies, could respond in meaningful ways.

Zeynep in a bike helmet

Zeynep Tufekci

In her class “Big Data, Algorithms, and Society,” Tufekci helps students learn how information travels amid the environment in which it is produced and disseminated. This is a fitting forum, she says, for exploring not only how information about the pandemic has traveled, but also how that information has influenced behavior.

“At every level, the pandemic is a communications emergency — Dr. Fauci said that. To be talking about how we deal with the information sphere in terms of the pandemic — the media, the companies, our own role — has been very, very current.”

So, why her, and why not others? Tufekci says she imagines physicians and scientists were wary of speaking up against the CDC and the WHO, and she says she certainly was. She credits academic freedom for allowing her to use her voice confidently when others likely could not.

“I did worry I would get canceled. I worried I was taking a major risk and so would my reputation. But, I’m lucky. I have tenure. And this is what we’re supposed to do with that privilege. We’re supposed to speak up for others.”