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Digital Media, Inequality, and Cyber-Civil Rights

Session A: July 6 - July 16, 2021
9:30 a.m. - 12 p.m.
Computer Science
Sophie Maddocks

From ordering a taxi to searching for a job, digital media technologies have revolutionized the way many of us live our lives. Although they help us to achieve our daily goals, new digital media products also pose major risks and challenges. The aim of this module is to explore how new technologies and old social inequalities influence each other. Using real-world examples of predictive analytics, surveillance, deep fakes, and disinformation, we think critically about the role of digital media technologies in reinforcing and challenging social inequalities. Through the concept of ‘cyber-civil rights’, we investigate the norms that are developing around issues of speech, privacy, and access to information on the internet. In this module we become researchers: reading key texts from the fields of Communication and Critical Internet Studies, and applying them to our own research projects focused on the technologies that matter to us. At the end of this module we zoom out, exploring futuristic visions of life online and reflecting on our own roles as ‘digital citizens’.

Course Objectives:

By the end of this course, students will be able to:

  • Understand and apply core concepts used in the study of digital inequality.
  • Use visual and textual research methods to analyze digital media.
  • Evaluate the risks and rewards of different digital media technologies.
  • Understand how social and structural conditions shape speech, privacy, and access to information online.
  • Reflect creatively on possible digital futures.
  • Engage critically with the digital media they consume in everyday life and interact safely with others online.
  • Put their knowledge about digital media to work in their own lives through education, internships, employment, activism, and/or art.


Assignment 1 - Comparative Analysis: Students choose two digital products (e.g. Fitbit, live video platform, drone). Students research their funding and development, then compare the ethics, risks, rewards, possibilities, and constraints of each technology. Students upload their comparative analyses to Canvas by the end of session 6.

Assignment 2 - Digital futures manifesto: For this assignment students work in small groups to produce a manifesto for the future of digital media. Students present their manifestos during session 9. Presentations include a reflection on the process of collaborating with others.

How to Prepare for Class

  • Complete the required reading to the best of your ability prior to each session.
  • Before each session, complete at least one of the following stem sentences and post your sentence to the class discussion on Canvas.

    - A key idea/term/concept is ____________.
    - Something I don’t understand is ____________.
    - A question I have is ____________.
    - Something I want to challenge or change is ____________.

  • Try to find a quiet place where you can concentrate and you won’t be distracted.
  • Make sure you have a laptop or tablet with a keyboard, headphones, and a working microphone.
  • Gather anything you might need during the session, like charging cables or water. Turn off other devices and close other tabs to avoid distractions.
  • Join each Zoom session promptly at the beginning of the session time.


Before the course begins, read these short articles on academic reading skills:

  • “Strategies for Reading Academic Articles”. The Writing Center, George Mason University (2 pages)
  • “Tips for Active Reading”. The Writing Center, George Mason University (1 page).
  • “Beyond the Abstract: Reading for Meaning in Academia.” Calarco, Jessica. (2018). Blog Post (1 page).

Session 1 - What are digital inequalities? What are cyber-civil rights?
Getting to know each other, course overview, class policies, troubleshooting Canvas and Zoom, questions about the course, tips for reading academic texts, introducing key concepts.

  • Required: Laura Robinson et al. (2015). “Digital Inequalities and Why They Matter.” Pgs. 569-579
  • Case Study: New York Times. (2020). “When Did Instagram Go Dark? We have mixed feelings about #BlackoutTuesday, too.”

Session 2 - What’s New About New Media Technologies?

  • Required: Wendy Chun. (2016). “Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual New Media”. Introduction. Pgs 1-5.
  • Case Study: Vogue. (2020). “Influencers Are the Retailers of the 2020s”.

Session 3 - Studying Life Online: Research Methods and Ethics
Key terms: digital methods, research ethics, visual analysis

  • Required: Harvard Business Review. (2014). “Were OkCupid’s and Facebook’s Experiments Unethical?”
  • Suggested: Claire Hewson. (2017). “Research Design and Tools for Online Research”. Pg 2-15.

Session 4 - Access to Information: Race, Class and Big Data
Key terms: Big Data, Predictive Analytics, Algorithmic Oppression

  • Required: Safiya Noble. (2019). “Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism”. Chapter 1, A Society Searching. Pgs. 15-18.
  • Required: New York Times. (2019). “The Devastating Consequences of Being Poor in the Digital Age.”

Session 5 - Freedom of Expression: Deep Fakes and Disinformation

  • Required: Danielle Keats Citron. (2019). “Deep Fakes: A Looming Challenge for Privacy, Democracy, and National Security”. Pgs 1753-1758.
  • Required: Britt Paris and Joan Donovan. (2020). “Deepfakes and Cheap Fakes: The Manipulation of Audio and Visual Evidence.” Pgs 1-23.

Session 6 – Privacy and Surveillance
Key terms: Surveillance, Networked Privacy
Assignment 1 Due: Students upload their comparative analysis to Canvas.

  • Required: Mark Andrejevic. (2015). Foreword, “Feminist Surveillance Studies”. Pg 1-10.
  • Case Study: The Intercept. (2020). “Police surveilled george floyd protests with help from twitter-affiliated startup dataminr”.

Session 7 - Imagining Digital Futures

  • Required: John Perry Barlow. (1996). “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”. Davos: Electronic Frontier Foundation.
  • Required: Florence Okoye. (2015). “Black to the Future: Afrofuturism and Tech Power”. Open Democracy.
  • Suggested: Association for Progressive Communication. (2018). “Feminist Principles of the Internet”.

Session 8 - Planning Our Digital Futures: From Drone Art to Cybersecurity
Exploring undergraduate courses, internships, employment and artistic opportunities connected to digital media.

  • Browse these videos detailing the career trajectories of Forbes 30 under 30 Media honorees (Forbes, 2020).

Session 9 – Reflections on digital citizenship and online safety.
Assignment 2 Due: Each group presents their ‘digital futures’ manifesto.

  • No required readings