Would online censorship be effective? Evidence from two research projects proves the opposite

you’ve probably reached this blog after listening to my interview with Jian Ghomeshi on CBC Radio Canada’s programme Q. In case you missed it, here’s the podcast:

In this post, you’ll find some background information about my ongoing research on internet censorship – mainly in collaboration with Paola Tubaro (University of Greenwich, UK) and other colleagues. Our focus is on unintended and negative effects of censorship, based on analyses of social media use conducted in the last few years.

In my latest book Les liaisons numériques. Vers une nouvelle sociabilité? [Digital Relationships. Towards a New Sociability?, Paris, Seuil, 2010] I dealt with the topic of pro-ana (short for “pro-anorexia”) and pro-mia (“pro-bulimia”) websites, blogs and forums of persons with eating disorders. The most controversial among them have gone as far as to claim that eating disorders are a choice or a lifestyle, rather than conditions. A grant from the French National Research Agency (ANR) allowed me and my colleagues to lauch ANAMIA, a large-scale study on eating disorder-oriented online communities.

ANAMIA research project – featured on Boing Boing

Since the early 2000s, fears that these websites may induce unhealthy behaviours (possibly in young and adolescent viewers), have prompted many web services to remove them, while some countries have considered outlawing them. Yet eating-disorder related Web communities continue to proliferate. They have migrated to more hidden platforms, barred entry to outsiders, concealed their true nature, and relocated in foreign countries. In a previous post published on Bodyspacesociety blog, I have dubbed this the “toothpaste tube effect“: squeezed from one service, controversial contents re-group elsewhere. Paradoxically, censorship multiplies these websites – if only because of the urge to duplicate contents for backup purposes, in case they have to shut down and move!

Mapping pro-ED websites (France, 2010-2012) – ANAMIA research project

Today, these websites are less open and less visible, though still numerous and densely connected with one another. Thus, they can still influence their users, just as before; but it has become harder for health and nutrition campaigns to locate them and reach out to their users.

Our results indicate that Internet censorship is ineffective and inefficient: it has failed to stop “negative” influences, and has made it more difficult for “positive” influences to operate.


Is a social media-fuelled uprising the worst case scenario? Elements for a sociology of UK riots

By Antonio A. Casilli & Paola Tubaro. French version provided by

“It's time we heard a little bit less about the economic and sociological justifications for what is in my view nothing less than wanton criminality”. (Boris Johnson, public speech London, Aug 9, 2011)

“We are not social scientists. We have to deal with urgent situations” (Paul McKeever, Police Federation Chairman, SkyNews Aug 11, 2011)

“Nowadays sabotaging the social machine involves reappropriating and reinventing the ways of interrupting its networks”. (The Invisible Committee, The Coming Insurrection, Semiotext(e), 2009, p. 112)

This is the first of a series of joint posts of Bodyspacesociety + Paola Tubaro’s Blog. You are kindly invited to visit both websites, featuring plenty of interesting stuff.

Why social media bring democracy to developing countries and anarchy to rich ones?

O sublime hypocrisy of European mainstream media! The same technologies that a few months ago were glorified for single-handedly bringing down dictators during the Arab Spring, are now at the core of an unprecedented moral panic for their alleged role in fuelling UK August 2011 riots. In a recent post, Christian Fuchs rightly maintains:

And, o! exquisite refinement in the ancient art of double standard: the same conservative press that indignantly deplored dictators’ censorship of online communication, now call for plain suppression of entire telecommunication networks – as unashamedly exemplified by this piece in the Daily Mail.

Fact is, moral panic about social media is the specular reflection of the acritical enthusiasm about these very same technologies. They both spring from the same technological determinism that acclaims new gimmicks and buzzwords to smooth away the economic and social roots of unrest.
Having said that, what can we, as social scientists, say about the role of social media in assisting or even encouraging widespread political conflict? Very little indeed, insofar as we do not have data on actual social media use and traffic during riots. It would take months to gather that data – and who can wait for so long in a media environment that spits out “quick and dirty” analyses by the hour?