ASTK18278U Governed by Algorithms – Facebook, Google, and the Re-programming of Digital Citizens

Volume 2019/2020

Bachelor student (2012 programme curriculum): 10 ECTS

Bachelor student (2017 programme curriculum): 7.5 ECTS

Master student: 7.5 ECTS


The age-old questions of governance, power, and freedom are becoming increasingly important to the digital field. The social and political worlds of humans increasingly migrate to the coded reality of Facebook and its counterparts. This digital realm, and how the subjects of “Facebookistan and Googledom” (MacKinnon 2012) are governed is increasingly important to politicians and academics alike, and has spurred a flurry of research, commentary, and policy proposals.


This course takes onset in original research into the governmentalities of Facebook. While rooted in both classical and novel theories of state, power, and politics (most notably, Foucault), the focus in this course will be on the empirical and political reality of the quasi-state actors of the digital reality. We will explore how the “new patriarchs” (Little & Winch 2017) are shaping subjects and societies offline as well as online, and we will look into how subtle changes to structure can have profound effects on offline society, both deliberately and accidentally.


More than anything, we will explore what is happening in that increasingly important arena for individuals, states, and everything in between which we used to call cyberspace. We will apply theories of power and persuasion to digital spaces and look at the wider critique of the way these spaces are constituted and governed. We will then explore the varied narratives of what is happening, how we got here, and what it means for us individually and collectively. Along the way, we will attempt to understand the rationales and ideas behind the codes that steer our online behaviours, and explore whether large online entities (such as Facebook) can indeed be seen as states in their own right. We will look concretely at how Facebook and other actors are governing their cyber polities, and we will explore policy recommendations and initiatives, such as GDPR, and US calls to split up ‘big tech’. Underway, we will look each other over the shoulder and try to maximise outcome. I.e. students will present a sketch of their papers, get and give feedback.

Learning Outcome


  • Attendees will know the key concepts around digital subjects and power
  • Attendees will know the historical development of digital platforms from different perspectives (surveillance capitalism, panopticism, datafied subjects)
  • Attendees will be aware of the prevalent political and ethical problems with digital governance today and in the future
  • Attendees will have an up-to-date knowledge of the important actors and events in digital (soft) policy, as well as the theoretical footing to understand them academically.



  • Attendees will have acquired the tools to analyse, compare, and relate online actors, networks, and structures.
  • They will be able to apply abstract theories of digital subjects and power to concrete cases, producing salient work on digital governance
  • Attendees will be able to think outside the offline box when contemplating policy proposals involving tech.



  • Attendees will emerge with an expert-level abstract knowledge of the institutions and technologies that increasingly pervade and shape us as subjects and societies. Yes, that means Facebook, Google, and the likes.
  • Attendees will be able to design a study of social media platforms or other technologies which is not (necessarily) based on scraped data and quantitative methodologies.

The material is a mix of theoretical and practical pieces, including (as empirical cases) patents, newspaper articles, and legislation information (GDPR). I have left room to add a few more updated texts before beginning of semester (current page count: 977). 


1. Brave new world (of code)

Koopman, Colin (2019). How We Became Our Data: A genealogy of the informational person; preface, pp. vii-x

Winner, Langdon (1980) - Do Artifacts Have Politics?

Clarke, R. (1994) - The Digital Persona and its Application to Data Surveillance


2. Welcome to the dark side

Rebecca MacKinnon (2012) Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle For Internet Freedom


3. But, why?

Little, B. & Winch, A. (2017). “just hanging out with you in my back yard”: Mark Zuckerberg and Mediated Paternalism. Open Cultural Studies, 1(1), pp. 417-427.

Zuboff, S. (2019). The Age of Surveillance Capitalism The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. P I, pp. 3-63, pp. 329-376, pp. 495-526


4. How did we get here?

Koopman, Colin (2019). How We Became Our Data: A genealogy of the informational person; pp.


5. Is there a doctor in the room?

Amoore, L. (2018). Doubtful Algorithms: Of Machine Learning Truths and Partial Accounts. Theory, Culture Society..

Amoore, Louise (2011). Data Derivatives - On the Emergence of a Security Risk Calculus for Our Times

Žižek, S. (1998). Fantasy and the retreat of the big other. Public Culture, 483-513

Foucault, M - Foucault Reader [ed. Rabinow] (Pantheon, 1984);  Docile Bodies pp. 179-188. The Means of Correct Training, pp. 188-206. Panopticism, pp. 206-214


6. Any thoughts? (paper 1)

Lessig, L. (2006). Code: Version 2.0. New York: Basic Books; ch 1, 2, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18

Sunstein, Cass R. - 2.0; ch 3, 10


7. If it barks like a state…

Brønholt, T. (forthcoming, 2019) Governed by Algorithms: Theories of digitised powers to shape subjects and societies

2019 Libra Association Members (2019). Libra White Paper (online, PDF)

Hannah Murphy (2019). Inside Facebook’s information warfare team. in Financial Times (online)

Zetter, K. (2011). How Digital Detectives Deciphered Stuxnet, the Most Menacing Malware in History (online)

Bossetta, Michael (2018) - The Digital Architectures of Social Media…


8. Trust me, I'm an engineer

Hansen, Saridakis, Benson 2018. Risk, trust, and the interaction of perceived ease of use and behavioral control in predicting consumers’ use of social media for transactions


Pariser, E. (2011) Beware Online Filter Bubbles (Ted Talk)

Pariser, E. (2011) The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is hiding from you (book); ch. 5 The Public Is Irrelevant;. pp. 76-91; pp.91-104; pp. 104-118

Warlop, R., Lazaric, A., & Mary, J. (2018). Fighting Boredom in Recommender Systems with Linear Reinforcement Learning. 32nd Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems

Anderson, A., Huttenlocher, D., Kleinberg, J., & Leskovec, J. (2013). Steering user behavior with badges. Proceedings of the 22nd international conference on World Wide Web (pp. 95-106).


9. Student Presentations – present paper 2 outline


10. Are you saying we need a break?

EU - Information about GDPR (2018 reform)

Team Warren (2019). Here’s how we can break up Big Tech

Dayen, D. (2019). How to Think About Breaking Up Big Tech

Grassegger, H. (2018, April 15). Facebook says its ‘voter button’ is good for turnout. But should the tech giant be nudging us at all? (online)

Clarke, R. (2014). Persona missing, feared drowned: the digital persona concept, two decades later. Information Technology & People, 182-207.


11. If a troll shouts in the forest…

Brønholt, T. (forthcoming, 2019) Gated Communities of the Digitised Mind: An exploration of Facebook echo chambers and their implications in MacNish & Galliot (eds.) Big Data and Democracy…

Martin Hilbert, Saifuddin Ahmed, Jaeho Cho, Billy Liu & Jonathan Luu (2018): Communicating with Algorithms: A Transfer Entropy Analysis of Emotions-based Escapes from Online Echo Chambers, Communication Methods and Measures

Bakshy et. al. (2015) - Exposure to ideologically diverse news and opinion on Facebook

Bessi, A. (2016) - Personality Traits and Echo Chambers on Facebook


12. Famous last words - recap

Students wanting to move closer to the area of cyber security and digital ethics, whether in preparation for a 21st century job, a thesis, or out of general interests should find this course interesting, perhaps even stimulating.

While knowledge of all things politics and cyber might be helpful in the reading of some material, it is not a prerequisite. However, basic knowledge of theories of power and politics (e.g. Bachrach, Baratz & Lukes, Foucault, Weber and similar) is advisable, as is a desire to apply them on the abstract notion of the digital subject.
The class will start as lecture with class discussion, and then increasingly transition towards peer learning and working with concrete cases. The pedagogical structure of the course can be divided into 5 major headings.

Part 1 will be lectures with questions and comments.
Part 2 will be lectures with “buddy discussions” and class summary.
Part 3 will feature student presentations of papers and class discussion. This ends with the submission of the first paper.
Part 4 will feature student presentations of cases, preliminary analysis, and class discussion.
Part 5 will feature presentation of in-depth cases. In the penultimate session, students/groups will present their final paper outline and receive peer feedback.

Students are encouraged to submit papers in groups rather than individually, though this is not a demand.
  • Category
  • Hours
  • Class Instruction
  • 28
  • Total
  • 28
Feedback by final exam (In addition to the grade)
Peer feedback (Students give each other feedback)


Students will receive written feedback on papers, and are welcome to ask for
clarification of these in or after class.

7,5 ECTS
Type of assessment
Portfolio exam
Marking scale
7-point grading scale
Censorship form
No external censorship

Free written assignment

Criteria for exam assesment
  • Grade 12 is given for an outstanding performance: the student lives up to the course's goal description in an independent and convincing manner with no or few and minor shortcomings
  • Grade 7 is given for a good performance: the student is confidently able to live up to the goal description, albeit with several shortcomings
  • Grade 02 is given for an adequate performance: the minimum acceptable performance in which the student is only able to live up to the goal description in an insecure and incomplete manner