Walking Through Firewalls: Circumventing Censorship of Social Media and Online Content in a Networked Authoritarian Context
The early hopes of the internet as a technology of “liberation” have turned into a reinforcing spiral of control, innovation, resistance, and counter-innovation between authoritarian governments and those that seek to bypass censorship and digital repression. This spiral reflects that even the most robust censorship mechanisms are vulnerable to circumvention, which has become a key concept for illustrating the contemporary online communication experience of citizens. Yet, the scholarship examining the underlying motivations and what influences individuals to employ censorship circumvention technologies (CCTs) in authoritarian contexts remains underdeveloped. We present a theoretical model of how state-sponsored political identity and attitudes about media freedom influence motivated resistance to censorship in the case of using CCTs to access social media and other forms of online content in the networked authoritarian context of Iran. Employing a web-based survey of internet users (N = 807), we test this theoretical model across a range of censored online content types. Our findings show that regime ideology in Iran indirectly influences CCT use through biasing perceptions of media freedom and how people respond to it in the form of motivated resistance. We discuss theoretical and policy-related implications for resilience to censorship of social media and online content in networked authoritarian contexts.