How Sudden Censorship Can Increase Access to Information

32 Pages Posted: 21 Jun 2017 Last revised: 9 Jan 2018

See all articles by William R. Hobbs

William R. Hobbs

Cornell University

Margaret Roberts

University of California, San Diego (UCSD) - 21st Century China Center

Date Written: January 17, 2017

Abstract

Conventional wisdom assumes that increased censorship will strictly decrease access to information. We delineate circumstances when increases in censorship will expand access to information. When governments suddenly impose censorship on previously uncensored information, citizens accustomed to acquiring this information will be incentivized to learn methods of censorship evasion. These tools provide continued access to the newly blocked information and also extend users’ ability to access information that has long been censored. We illustrate this phenomenon using millions of individual-level actions of social media users in China before and after the block of Instagram. We show that the block inspired millions of Chinese users to acquire virtual private networks (VPNs) and join censored websites like Twitter and Facebook. Despite initially being apolitical, these new users began browsing blocked political pages on Wikipedia, following Chinese political activists on Twitter, and discussing highly politicized topics such as opposition protests in Hong Kong.

Keywords: Censorship, Social Media, China, Internet, Communications, Protests, Political Activists

Suggested Citation

Hobbs, William R. and Roberts, Margaret, How Sudden Censorship Can Increase Access to Information (January 17, 2017). 21st Century China Center Research Paper No. 2017-02. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2990593 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2990593

William R. Hobbs

Cornell University

Ithaca, NY 14853
United States

Margaret Roberts (Contact Author)

University of California, San Diego (UCSD) - 21st Century China Center ( email )

9500 Gilman Drive #0519
La Jolla, CA 92093-0519
United States

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