COVID-19 Increased Censorship Circumvention And Access To Sensitive Topics In China

June 2021
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Revise & Resubmit

Crisis motivates people to track news closely, and this increased engagement can expose individuals to politically sensitive information unrelated to the initial crisis. We use the case of the COVID-19 outbreak in China to examine how crisis affects information seeking in countries that normally exert significant control over access to media. The crisis spurred censorship circumvention and access to international news and political content on websites blocked in China. Once individuals circumvented censorship, they not only received more information about the crisis itself but also accessed unrelated information that the regime has long censored. Using comparisons to democratic and other authoritarian countries also affected by early outbreaks, the findings suggest that people blocked from accessing information most of the time might disproportionately and collectively access that long-hidden information during a crisis. Evaluations resulting from this access, negative or positive for a government, might draw on both current events and censored history.

Spotlights
  • Use geolocated Tweets from China during the COVID-19 crisis.
  • Show that crisis motivates citizens to seek out sensitive information.
  • Gateway to both current and historically sensitive content is not found in countries without extensive online censorship.