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[liberationtech] Paper on social media censorship in times of political unrest

Antonio A. Casilli acasilli at
Wed Jul 4 10:43:07 PDT 2012

Dear all,

I'm pleased to announce the publication of our study “Social Media
Censorship in Times of Political Unrest – A Social Simulation Experiment
with the UK Riots”, in the Bulletin of Sociological Methodology, vol. 115,
n. 1.

I attach the SAGE press release. At the end of the mail, a link to
download the preprint version of the article, plus other relevant
materials (code, video, etc.)


# # #

Press Room « Press Release

Contact (media enquiries only)
Katie Baker
PR Executive
Phone: +44 0207 324 8719
Katie.Baker at


London, (July 02, 2012). Is social media censorship a means to quell a
modern uprising? Some politicians and law enforcers during the political
turbulence of 2011 thought so but recent research suggests that uncensored
citizens experience less violence and longer periods of peace between
outbursts than communities subject to censorship. These new findings
appear in the Bulletin of Sociological Methodology, published by SAGE.

A consensus is forming around Internet censorship in the wake of last
year’s uprisings, extending from the Arab Spring to the UK, according to
Antonio Casilli, associate professor in digital humanities at Telecom
ParisTech, France and Paola Tubaro, senior lecturer in economic sociology
at the University of Greenwich, UK. The authors used sophisticated
computer modeling to find out if the assumptions that actors’ use of media
– such as Twitter – fueled mob action through greater awareness were true.
Ambiguously, current narratives among the European political establishment
suggest social media can be either the tools of liberation (in developing
countries) or threats to values of peace and freedom (in Western

The researchers used state-of-the-art agent-based modelling as a starting
point. Political conflict is often described as cumulative, involving
‘escalating’ conflict and sometimes ending with regime change. However, in
reality, periods of relative stability punctuated with violent outbursts
are more typical. Existing models include a variable called ‘vision,’ an
individual agent’s ability to scan his/her neighbourhood for signs of
police officers and/or active protesters. Higher vision means greater
awareness of one’s surroundings and a larger range of possible actions.

In Casilli and Tubaro’s computer simulation, censorship narrows down
vision.  It interrupts the flow of communication and decreases the ability
of individuals to appreciate their environment.  In this sense, censorship
blinds social actors to their own context.

The researchers found that all possible scenarios led to initial outbursts
of violence but how the situation evolved was significantly influenced by
government social media censorship. In a total censorship scenario,
similar to the Egyptian riots, violence levels remained at a maximum.
Stronger censorship led to an increase in the average level of endemic
violence over time.

According to the model, the “no censorship” situation at first appears
bleak, with incessant, high-level violent outbursts that seem larger than
in other scenarios. However, looking at average violence levels over time,
the uncensored scenario still has the least aggression. Although agents
protest, sometimes violently, they are able to return to relative calm for
longer periods in-between. The decision to maintain peace is the choice of
agents themselves, rather than due to police repression.

This research offers an interesting methodological bridge that shows how
rules operating at the micro or individual level can account for
collective dynamics. This is particularly interesting at a time when
research is trending into two camps, either using micro-motives (such as
personality, culture, and morals) or macro-indicators (such as poverty and
social stratification) as explanatory factors.

“In the absence of robust indicators as to the rebelliousness of a given
society, 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,” say Casilli and

# # #

“Social Media Censorship in Times of Political Unrest - A Social
Simulation Experiment with the UK Riots” by Antonio A. Casilli and Paola
Tubaro, published July 02 2012 in Bulletin of Sociological Methodology

BMS: Bulletin of Sociological Methodology/Bulletin de Méthodologie
Sociologique is a quarterly peer-reviewed scientific journal edited by
Karl van Meter specializing in all aspects of sociological methodology,
and published in both English and French. Each volume of the BMS contains
research articles, extensive book and article reviews, as well as
documentation and information on different centres of sociology and
important meetings throughout the world.

# # #

The article will be free to access for a limited time here:

To access the preprint version and other relevant material:

Antonio A. Casilli
Associate Professor Telecom ParisTech
Researcher Edgar Morin Centre, EHESS, Paris

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