Why censoring social media might mean more-violent protests

Updated: Cutting off access to social media during times of civil unrest might actually lead to more violence than no censorship at all. This is according to two European researchers who built a computer model showing that high levels of censorship (e.g., Hosni Mubarak’s decision to turn off Egypt’s Internet) result in sustained periods of violent activity, whereas no censorship leads to spiky periods of violent outbursts broken up by relatively long periods of relative calm.

The authors, Antonio A. Casilli and Paola Tubaro, detail their findings in a paper titled “Social Media Censorship in Times of Political Unrest – A Social Simulation Experiment with the UK Riots,” which appears in the July issue of the Bulletin of Sociological Methodology (it’s not yet available online, but an advance version is available here).

The research is especially timely given the attention social media has received during the revolutions and violent protests that have occurred worldwide over the past couple years. As the authors note when discussing the U.K. government’s response to riots in August 2011, “[T]he same information technologies that had been presented as tools of liberation in the height of the Arab Spring, have been portrayed as threats to the very values of freedom and peace that Western governments allegedly stand for.”

The authors attribute their findings (albeit computer-generated) largely to the idea of “vision,” which plays a pivotal role in sociological experiments trying to determine how individuals act during times of protest or rioting. Put simply, less censorship means more vision, so citizens (called “agents” in the computer model) know what’s going on around them and can act in more uniform and rational manners. More censorship means less vision, so citizens are less aware of their surroundings and tend to act randomly.

Overstating the importance of social media?

However, while this research is both interesting and important, it might not tell the whole story about patterns of violence during times of unrest. As the authors note, factors such as economic hardship and a loss of government legitimacy may also determine whether uprising become violent — perhaps much more so than whether protestors have the ability to coordinate via Twitter.

A Guardian analysis of individuals arrested during the U.K. riots in August, for example, found that rioters were overwhelmingly “young, poor and unemployed” (read “more disenfranchised than ordinary citizens”). And even before the advent of social media, non-violent protests have been the norm in the relatively stable and rich United States for decades, with only minimal violence breaking out during the Occupy protests that took hold in dozens of cities nationwide during 2011.

Update: The United Kingdom’s Ministry of Justice just released a bunch more information on arrests, sentences and demographics from last year’s riots.

Another factor, the authors mention, is that keeping the web open also keeps it open to law-enforcement agencies, which can keep an eye on social media channels to gain intelligence into what protestors are planning. In Syria’s revolution, it’s worth noting, deciding to engage in social media efforts against the government can have life-or-death consequences.

Certainly, there’s room for more research to determine the factors that lead to individual protests shaping up as they do. The advent of big data techniques will make it easier than ever to analyze the mountains of web, socio-economic and geo-political data that might help uncover more answers. But Casilli, Tubaro and their computer model present a good case for not underestimating the role of access to social media.

“In the absence of robust indicators as to the rebelliousness of a given society,” their paper concludes, “the choice of not restricting social communication turns out to be a judicious one for avoiding the surrender of democratic values and freedom of expression for an illusory sense of security.”

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock user JustASC.