Can an Algorithm be Agonistic? Ten Scenes from Life in Calculated Publics

Search and Advertising, Media and Content, Internet and Networks, the Internet, and Cloud Computing

Article Snapshot


Kate Crawford


Science, Technology & Human Values, Vol. 41, No. 1, pp. 77-92, 2016


Public spaces like YouTube use algorithms to search, rank, and recommend information. Algorithms produce “winners” in information contests, but with little visibility or accountability.

Policy Relevance

Engineers and policymakers should consider the political implications of choosing certain algorithms.

Main Points

  • In a democracy, political questions are decided by a struggle between adversaries, not by reaching a rational consensus; one scholar describes this as an “agonistic struggle.”
  • Spaces like Reddit, Facebook, and Amazon use algorithms to rank discourse; choosing, modifying, and producing algorithms affects political life.
  • When a consumer buys a book on Amazon, Amazon suggests other books that are often purchased together, but we do not know how Amazon has chosen these suggestions.
  • Some acknowledge that the undisclosed algorithms used by search engines determine the appeal of web sites, but fail to knowledge how individuals, institutions, and industries game the system to come first in the rankings.
  • After the Boston Marathon bombing, Reddit users noted the resemblance between the bombing suspects and Sunil Tripathi, an innocent student; through the operation of Reddit’s “upvoting” algorithm, Tripathi committed suicide.
  • Algorithms based on the theory that users will debate and produce a democratic consensus by rational debate will not always “fit” the way the Internet really works.
  • Calls for companies to reveal the way their algorithms work are unlikely to succeed.
    • Companies like Facebook claim that algorithms are proprietary information, and that users could game the system.
    • Algorithms are very complex.


Get The Article

Find the full article online

Search for Full Article