New Research: Internet Censorship To Stop Protests… Actually Increases Protests

from the who-didn't-see-that-coming? dept

We’ve been arguing for a while that attempts by various governments to shut down forms of communication during protests and riots only serves to make protesters and rioters angrier. Some new (quite timely) research, pointed out by Mathew Ingram, seems to agree that internet censorship tends to make such problems worse. The research is a quick read, and certainly goes further than efforts like L. Gordon Crovitz’s “it’s okay if the world didn’t end.”

The key part of the research is that it models the behavior of protesters in various cases, using proven simulation techniques. It’s really quite fascinating to see how they model “civil violence.” While simplified, it definitely can be useful for modeling how people react in certain situations, and it appears to have a decent track record.

The agent’s behaviour is influenced by several variables, the first one being his/her personal level of political dissatisfaction (“grievance”, indicated by lighter or darker shades of green colour in figure 1). This can lead the agent to abandon his/her state of quiet and become an active protester (red coloured circles in figure 1). However, the decision to act out — whether it is to go on a looting spree or to engage in violent demonstrations — is conditioned by the agent’s social surroundings (“neighbourhood” in the model’s language). Does s/he detect the presence of police (blue triangles in figure 1) in the surroundings? If the answer to this question is no, s/he will act out. If the answer is yes, another question is asked: is this police presence counterbalanced by a sufficient number of actively protesting citizens? If the answer to this second question is yes, then the agent acts out. Sometimes, in an utterly random way, one of the active citizens gets caught by the police and is sent to jail for a given period of time (black circles in figure 1). Again, the apparent simplicity of this rule, is sadly consistent with the many episodes of arbitrary and “swift” justice triggered by the UK government adoption of a hard line in dealing with riot repression.

From there, the researchers, Antonio Casilli and Paola Tubaro, model in internet censorship to see what impact it has. What they find is the greater the censorship, the greater the violence. The least amount of violence occurs when there is no censorship. While the model could certainly be improved upon, it is useful to see that at least the first attempt at modeling such behavior seems to indicate what we’ve been saying for a while: censorship isn’t likely to help and likely makes things worse.

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Comments on “New Research: Internet Censorship To Stop Protests… Actually Increases Protests”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

It appears at first glance also to be a little bit of the old “start with the conclusion” stuff, more than anything.

It also seems to fail, at least at first glance, because it doesn’t truly address the nature of the UK riots (which it tries to “model”). Very little of the UK riots was about the actual police action, that was only the trigger. The rest of it was hoodlums and louts who figured out they could score free stuff looting stores under the guise of a political riot. Those people weren’t angry to start with (at least not in the sense of angry about the trigger event), so cutting off, limiting, or slowing instant messaging type communication would not have as much bearing on them. They were opportunists, not protesters.

Richard (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

It appears at first glance also to be a little bit of the old “start with the conclusion” stuff, more than anything.

It needs more than one glance – and a bit of background reading.

this is only a constructed model.

Yes – but the model wasn’t contructed specifically for this study – it’s been around – and subject to peer review for 10 years or so. It’s not plausible to dismiss it as simply starting from the conclusion and working backwards.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

It’s not plausible to dismiss it as simply starting from the conclusion and working backwards.

Yes, it is plausible.

Spin trumps science.

Spin trumps science every time. It’s like paper-rock-scissors. It’s just the rules. You can’t beat ’em: No one ever accepts the idea that a big enough rock moving at a fast enough velocity shreds it’s way through a piece of paper. You tell people that and they think you’re crazy. No, spin trumps science every time.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Eh, while I agree, this is only a constructed model. Doesn’t seem that conclusive to me.

Well, this is Techdirt. So anything that Mike likes the results of is raised to “holier than the Bible” status. Just accept it as the word of God, drink your Kook-Aid, and wait for the lobotomy to kick in.

Squirrel Brains (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

The only ones that seem to be the Kool-Aid drinkers are the ACs that come and just make attacks against Mike without adding anything of substance to the conversation.

There are a lot of people here that share, to some degree, the posters’ views. However, there are also interesting conversations where people don’t agree, but they give reasons. That is what a real conversation looks like. Your comment added nothing. If you don’t agree with the subject matter of the post. Tell us why. The other ACs in this tread at least took a position and stated an opinion. You, on the other hand, are just a waste of space.

Anonymous Coward says:


I’ve thrown more than a few parties in my time and have also been to many parties. These range from organised large venues, outdoor and private house parties. A riot is kind of like a party. From my experience when you host a party and tell people they can do whatever they want, they tend to police themselves and have a good time. However, I’ve been to parties where everything is ruled, security is tight and over-bearing and you’re told what you can’t or can’t do and those usually spark into something not resembling a party but often a riot. Another classic is the house party where folks put cardboard on the floor, tell people to remove their shoes and tape the cupboards shut. This also usually results in the opposite of what folks are trying to avoid because then folks think we can do whatever the hell they want by being perceived as well as entering an environment where they are expected to act like idiots.

Basically treat people like adults and they tend to act like adults. Treat them like children and they tend to act like children.

out_of_the_blue says:

Results predicated on reasonably civil gov't.

Completely refuted by machine guns at Tiannamen Square.

That’s why it’s important to protest over seemingly minor infringements on liberties: to remind the gov’t who they SERVE not rule over. And of course equally and almost identically it’s important to keep The Rich within bounds by limiting money and power. Once the rulers get behind walls and machine guns, protest is effectively over. The Rich thrive most in societies where protest is risky, it’s actually pleasing to them to exercise power.

John Doe says:

Re: Results predicated on reasonably civil gov't.

You sure do have it in for the rich. Some of the rich are truly loathsome, but many have gotten rich by their labors and ingenuity. You should try it yourself.

Now the people to really despise are the governing elite. They no longer see the US as a government of the people, by the people, for the people. They see us serving the government instead of the government serving us.

Anonymous Coward says:

Somewhere in my reading, but I can’t remember where, I saw a quote from a politician (I’m pretty sure it was in the UK) that went something like “they don’t have any reason to be rioting/protesting”. There is always a reason, even if it isn’t always a good one. With that level of total disconnect from society, it’s no wonder your population is rioting.

Let’s face it, people, as a group/unit, are largely a passive bunch. History has shown they are willing to take often great abuses before they are willing to rebel. When people are screaming (in this case rioting) because they feel their voices aren’t being heard, what intelligent person thinks it is a bright idea to shove a gag in their mouth to muffle it?

Hephaestus (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“When people are screaming (in this case rioting) because they feel their voices aren’t being heard, what intelligent person thinks it is a bright idea to shove a gag in their mouth to muffle it?”

Agreed. I would like to add that with twitter, texting, blogs, facebook, email, and cellphones, you know that everyone else feels the same way as you do about your governments oppression. Which makes the fuse shorter and rioting more likely. Social media is a feedback loop of resentment that leads up to events like Egypt, london, etc. Shutting them down after a trigger event occurs will never work and only make things worse.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

You are making the mistake of confusing protesters (those screaming) with looters and profiteers.

Let me explain it to you in simple terms you might understand, by putting into P2P terms for you.

The protesters? They are the people moving around Unix distributions and WoW updates. They are doing the legal thing within a system.

The looters? They are the Tardian nation at work. They are directed by a few main leaders (call them sites like The Pirate Bay) to ransack and steal as much as they can.

The looters aren’t angry. They aren’t using unix. They don’t play WoW. They are just tards at play.

You need to understand that there is a huge different in two groups, and that, just like online P2P networking, a nasty bunch of people intent on doing illegal acts are hiding out behind a smaller group of people going about their legal business and exercising their legal rights.

Are you standing up for looters and saying they should have rights to loot?

The Logician says:

Logic clearly dictates that the study referenced in the article is indeed correct. When pressure (which is what censorship is) is applied, whether to an object or a group of people, that which is being pushed upon either breaks from the strain or?if it is of sufficient mass and density?pushes back, either through motion or force or both.

For instance, if you push your hand against a wall hard enough, you will feel pain. Or at the very least, muscle strain as you increase the pressure you are applying. The same applies in any situation where pressure is applied in one form or another. Put individuals under pressure for long enough and hard enough, and they will push back.

The Logician says:

Re: Re: Re:

Yet you do not provide any evidence to counter their own. Therefore, until such evidence is provided, theirs still stands. An absence of evidence is not, by itself, evidence of the contrary. And while an object moving is another alternative, it is still a reaction. What those who oppose what the study says suggest is that there would be no reaction, while even movement is otherwise.

And even if you do push something hard enough to move it, it still causes strain in your muscles if it is of sufficient mass. It still requires expending energy to move or to continue to apply pressure, which causes a drain on that which is applying it. There is no means of applying pressure without cost in some form.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Changes in situation apply pressure and move things. In some removing blackberry (or better, just delaying messages by 1 hours, example) might lead to anger, but in others it might be enough to disconnect them from the rioting group, and cause them to stop. We don’t know that, because the model tends to lean toward “more rioting” than anything else.

Less organized chaos might also lead to less actual looting, and less actual law breaking. It appears that in some cases, looters were “flash mobbing” to attack the best stores. Would they have angrily randomly destroyed things if they were not in a mob?

The lack of evidence to counter their claims is about on par with that they provide, a model, not evidence. It’s just an opinion cloaked in technology.

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