A new report is delineating circumstances when increases in censorship expand access to information for a substantial subset of the population, contrary to conventional wisdom, which assumes that increased censorship will strictly decrease access to information.
Titled “How Sudden Censorship Can Increase Access to Information”, the report advances a theory that when governments suddenly impose censorship on previously uncensored information, citizens accustomed to acquiring this information will be incentivized to learn methods of censorship evasion.
Written by William Hobbs of the Network Science Institute in Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts in the United States, and Margaret E. Roberts an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science of the University of California in San Diego, also in the United States, the report such evasion tools provide continued access to the newly blocked information and also extend users’ ability to access information that has long been censored.
The report illustrates this phenomenon using millions of individual-level actions of social media users in China before and after the block of Instagram.
The report shows 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.
According to the report, 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.