How Sudden Censorship Can Increase Access to Information

William R. Hobbs, Margaret E. Roberts
American Political Science Review
April 2, 2018


Conventional wisdom  assumes that increased censorship will strictly decrease access to  information. We delineate circumstances when increases in censorship expand  access to information for a substantial subset of the population. 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 evasion 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, and that these  users subsequently joined 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.

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