How Sudden Censorship Can Increase Access to Information
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.