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Saturday, March 11, 2023

Censoring political opposition online: Who does it and why

Ashokkumar, A., Talaifar, S.,  et al. (2020).
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 91


As ordinary citizens increasingly moderate online forums, blogs, and their own social media feeds, a new type of censoring has emerged wherein people selectively remove opposing political viewpoints from online contexts. In three studies of behavior on putative online forums, supporters of a political cause (e.g., abortion or gun rights) preferentially censored comments that opposed their cause. The tendency to selectively censor cause-incongruent online content was amplified among people whose cause-related beliefs were deeply rooted in or “fused with” their identities. Moreover, six additional identity-related measures also amplified the selective censoring effect. Finally, selective censoring emerged even when opposing comments were inoffensive and courteous. We suggest that because online censorship enacted by moderators can skew online content consumed by millions of users, it can systematically disrupt democratic dialogue and subvert social harmony.


• We use a novel experimental paradigm to study censorship in online environments.

• People selectively censor online content that challenges their political beliefs.

• People block online authors of posts they disagree with.

• When beliefs are rooted in identity, selective censoring is amplified.

• Selective censoring occurred even for comments without offensive language.


Contemporary pundits often blame the apparent increase in polarization on “the internet” or “social media.” Researchers have found some basis for such assertions by demonstrating that internet users are indeed selectively exposed to evidence that would lend support to their views. Our findings move beyond this literature by demonstrating that moderators employ censorship to not only bring online content into harmony with their values, but to actively advance their causes and attack opponents of their causes. From this vantage point, those whose political beliefs are rooted in their identities are not passive participants in online polarization; rather, they are agentic actors who actively curate online environments by censoring content that challenges their ideological positions. By providing a window into the psychological processes underlying these processes, our research may open up a broader vista of related processes for systematic study.