Reacting Against Media Censorship: Understanding Citizens’ Motivations for Using Internet and Social Media for News and Information

Golnoosh Behrouzian, Doctoral Candidate in the School of Communication at The Ohio State University, discusses a study that proposes a new communication construct to assess cognitive and affective reactions to perceived threats to citizens’ media freedom. 

The pandemic of media censorship continues to plague more than 80 percent of the world’s population. We continue to observe major violations against the mainstream media in many countries across the globe. While the suppression and regulation of political information is traditionally associated with the preservation of governmental power and control, there has been a surge of Internet and social media use amongst people living in censored media environments. This behavior not only undermines authoritarian agendas created by undemocratic regimes, but it also runs in direct contrast to how we usually think about the impact of censorship, the effects of which include an audience that is more submissive to and accepting of the objectives and expectations of the political elite.

In order to better understand the processes involved in this phenomenon we conducted two surveys in Turkey, which explored the underlying psychological motivations for why individuals are turning to online information sources. Our premise is that people are motivated to seek alternative sources of information when the mainstream media in their country is viewed as unable to meet their needs, or they feel that their freedom to access information is threatened. The key theoretical mechanism used in our study that addresses this concept is a modified version of the psychological theory of reactance, which we termed Motivated Resistance to Censorship (MRC).

We use this theory to bridge the relationship between this perception of threat and online information-seeking behavior. Reactance can be an affective or cognitive response to threats, which may prompt the individual to attempt restoring their freedom in some manner (i.e., online information seeking). Additionally, we account for several individual traits that may increase the potential for MRC, which include Proneness to Reactance (PtR) and Willingness To Self Censor (WTSC). Our results indicate the following:

  • In situations where people perceive a threat to media freedom, they are more likely to experience MRC.
  • Those who experience MRC are more inclined to engage in online information-seeking behavior.
  • Those who are generally predisposed to reacting in threatening situations are also those who experience higher levels of MRC.
  • High WTSC dampens the strength of the relationship between perceived threat and the degree to which citizens experience MRC.

Our findings also suggest that because people are individually motivated to respond to perceptions of threat, online information seeking can occur in any type of media system if they perceive their media freedom. It is no longer enough to assume that meaningful information-seeking behavior can only take place in more democratic media environments.

What are the implications for information policy and advocacy? Our paper suggests that influencing the perceived media censorship deficit – the gap between how much media freedom citizens want and how much they think they have – may set off a chain reaction that leads citizens to seek out measures to restore that freedom. In this case we examined just one form of remedy – turning to online information sources instead of censored TV or newspaper news.  However, citizens could potentially engage in other forms of remedies to restore media freedom– including political mobilization.  Thus, a second question that arises beyond how best to educate citizens on the threats to their media freedom is what determines which types of “remedies” citizens may employ when they experience a high level of MRC in response to media censorship?

Moving forward, a third question emerging from this initial study of citizen reactance to censorship is related to what happens if Internet freedom and mainstream media are simultaneously threatened – what type of cognitive or affective reactance might occur in that case? That is a question that many citizens are facing in countries like Russia and Turkey, which have heavily censored mass media and now have their governments attempting to strengthen political censorship online.

Featured Photo Credit: AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by Scott Robinson

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