Scholars have studied censorship by assuming it has an exogenous impact on a passive citizenry. Conventional wisdom posits that censorship should lower the probability that citizens access information (Morozov, 2011; Lessig, 1999). Not surprisingly, then, authoritarian governments appear to be tightening their grip on information environments, increasing their use of search filtering, content removal, and website blocking (Deibert et al., 2010; Kelly, Cook and Truong, 2012; Shirk, 2011), along with rapid online censorship during large-scale collective action events (King, Pan and Roberts, 2013, 2014), Here, we show that information environments more realistically function like ecosystems.
They are sufficiently complex that censorship can inadvertently increase information access for some while reducing it for others. Because some citizens quickly adapt to censorship, the imposition of restrictions can have unexpected consequences by creating incentives for censorship circumvention. In certain circumstances, sudden censorship can even result in the opposite of the intended effect: an increase in access to off-limits information among people motivated by the new censorship to seek out avenues for evasion.