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

Course content

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.




!! The structure of this course will be blended !! 


Bachelor student (2017 programme curriculum): 7.5 ECTS

Master student: 7.5 ECTS


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 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 student presentations and class summary.
Part 3 will feature student presentations of texts 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.

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: 911).


1. Brave new world (of code)

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

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

Rebecca MacKinnon: Building a sustainable information ecosystem for human rights and democracy (re:publica 2018)

Rebecca MacKinnon: Let's take back the Internet! (TED Talk)

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.


3. But, why?

Zuboff, S. (2019). The Age of Surveillance Capitalism The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power.

Zuboff, S. (2019). The Age of Surveillance Capitalism The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power.

Zuboff, S. (2019). The Age of Surveillance Capitalism The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power.


4. How did we get here?

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

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


5. The big F

Foucault, M - Foucault Reader [ed. Rabinow] (Pantheon, 1984)

The Subject and Power Foucault, Michel. Critical Inquiry; Summer 1982; 8, 4; Periodicals Archive Online pg. 777-795


6. 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


7. Any thoughts?

Lessig, L. (2006). Code: Version 2.0. New York: Basic Books.

Sunstein, Cass R. - 2.0


8. Theory / Lit Review paper

Present paper outline, class discussion

Formalia recap (hand in by March 30th)


9. If it barks like a state…

Brønholt, T. (forthcoming, 2020) 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…

Pariser, E. (2019) What obligation do social media platforms have to the greater good? (Ted Talk)


10. 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)

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

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). Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: ACM New York


11. Student presentations - empirical paper outline

Present paper outline, class discussion

Formalia recap


12. 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? Retrieved from the Guardian:

Clarke, R. (2014). Persona missing, feared drowned: the digital persona concept, two decades later. Information Technology & People, 182-207. doi:10.1108/ITP-04-2013-007


13. If a troll shouts in the forest…

Brønholt, T. (forthcoming, 2020) Gated Communities of the Digitised Mind: An exploration of Facebook echo chambers and their implications in MacNish & Galliot (eds.) Big Data and Democracy. Edinburgh University Press

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


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.

Students will receive peer and teacher feedback on presentation skills, as well as on cases and papers. For papers, the teacher feedback (apart from the grade) will be written, but students are welcome to seek out verbal clarification.

Peer feedback (Students give each other feedback)
7,5 ECTS
Type of assessment
The first paper will be theoretical, outlining theory, method, perhaps pre-empted by a relevant literature review.

The second paper will be empirical and (ideally) build on the first one, using a summary of it to set up an empirical paper.

The papers can be quantitative (data scraping, multiple choice questionnaires...), qualitative (data ethnography, open questions, grounded theory), mixed methods (case studies and whatnot), or post-structuralist (discourse analysis), as the student prefers, as long as they consistently fit the pieces together.
Marking scale
7-point grading scale
Censorship form
No external censorship
Criteria for exam assessment
  • 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

Single subject courses (day)

  • Category
  • Hours
  • Class Instruction
  • 28
  • English
  • 28