Blurring the Lines: Rethinking Censorship Under Autocracy
41 Pages Posted: 27 Nov 2017
Date Written: November 21, 2017
Self-censorship is subtle and difficult to observe, but its effects are potent and pernicious. We argue that policies encouraging self-censorship not only make it easier to stifle critical viewpoints, they also disadvantage those on the periphery of politics and power. Our guiding intuition is that actors without a connection to the regime have an informational disadvantage about what is on and off limits, which causes them to self-censor to a greater extent than those with more proximate links to the regime. We explore this hypothesis through the case of China, one of the world's most restrictive information environments and a sanctum of self-censorship. Leveraging evidence from virtual field experiments and online surveys, we show that self-censorship practiced by censors, journalists, and even average netizens is closely related to their relative proximity to the regime. Specifically, members of the private media and politically unconnected individuals self-censor to a greater extent than their public sector and state-affiliated peers. This surprising finding helps explain how China's rulers have been able to successfully contain and control a mushrooming information sector with only moderate use of overt censorship. It also helps explain how and why China's state-backed media, despite a reputation for pro-regime bias, remain surprisingly competitive in the domestic market.
Keywords: China, Autocracy, Censorship, Information, Media
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