Computational Social Science as Gatekeeper:

Promise & Peril as it extends beyond Academia

Zeynep Tufekci

Computational social science (CSS) is not confined to academia. If anything, some of the best data sources for CSS are proprietary databases which belong to software and technology companies. Computational social science appeals to for well-resourced corporations outside the technology fields for multiple reasons. Today’s complex software algorithms can be used in decision-making and act as a gate-keeper in many arenas, including hiring, firing, healthcare, investments, education and beyond. Algorithms are increasingly used also in government for purposes ranging from policing to infrastructure. In many of these cases, using CSS can cut costs, provide predictions and guidance for decision-making and resource allocation, and is seen by many as unbiased and objective. Computational social science can also be deployed at large scale and use data sources that would be hard for human decision-makers to effectively mobilize. However, computational social science outside academic purposes is still a form of causal inference in human affairs, an area with entrenched complexity. Yet, computational social science “in the wild” is often practiced with a practical bent, without much oversight, and without sufficient attention to the complexities and perils that range from ethics and privacy issues to mapping and understanding error patterns in this method, to biases and feedback loops built within these systems. In this talk, I will outline some of the emergent issues, and ask what academia can do to both raise awareness, and also to try to introduce safeguards.


Zeynep Tufekci is an associate professor at the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with an affiliate appointment at the Department of Sociology. She is also a faculty associate at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and was previously a fellow at the Center for Information Technology Policy at the Princeton University. Tufekci’s research interests revolve around the intersection of technology and society. Her academic work focuses on social movements and civics, privacy and surveillance, and social interaction. She is also increasingly known for her work on “big data” and algorithmic decision making. Originally from Turkey, and formerly a computer programmer, Tufekci became interested in the social impacts of technology and began to focus on how digital and computational technology interact with social, political and cultural dynamics. Her work has appeared in a wide range of outlets, from peer-reviewed journals to traditional media and blogging platforms. Her forthcoming book Beautiful Teargas: The Ecstatic, Fragile Politics of Networked Protest in the 21st Century, to be published by Yale University Press, will examine the dynamics, strengths and weaknesses of 21st century social movements.

September 27, 12:00pm

177 Huntington Ave 11th floor

Please bring your Northeastern ID (or other photo ID) when entering the building. Please email Janette Briceno (j.briceno[at]northeastern[dot]edu) if you plan to attend so that she may enter your name in the system for access to the 10th floor for lunch before the talk.