The Psychology of Censorship

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Most Americans condemn censorship unconditionally, regardless of their political party. We are patriotically proud of our freedom. We have access to just about any book that has ever been on a “banned” list, and generally maintain a belief of superiority over other countries, such as China, due to their censorship.

In short, you probably wouldn’t think to explain why censorship is bad.

It is, after all, our first amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

It should be noted that there has been some confusion over the past few years because people think that the first amendment protects people’s freedom of speech anywhere. It actually only protects your freedom of speech from the government [1]. There are convincing arguments contending that it should be extended to organizations such as Facebook, Twitter, and other large social media corporations.

Many Americans approach censorship with a pretty visceral, absolutist reaction. Let’s take a deeper look.

Censorship has complexity

“Is there a time when censorship is warranted?”

This question has a lot of nuance to it. Like most things in this world, it is not black and white and largely depends on the content. In fact, most social media companies have a Trust & Safety team whose job is to remove posts that violate their guidelines. As a former Trust & Safety engineer, I can tell you that it’s very muddy water. Policies are intentionally vague because strict rules simply cannot do a good job. Most of it has to do with the type of content being shared.

Take a look at a recent poll on a broad list of topics and you will see it’s far from clear:

Types of Censorship Poll

Personally, I find the idea of censoring foul language is absurd while I have absolutely no qualms about censoring child pornography. Another complexity that comes up is determining how content should be censored.

Types of censorship

If you’re like me, censorship immediately brings to mind the banning or removal of content. That is just one of many ways to censor content, others include:

  • Removed content
  • Removed pieces of content (or changes required before published)
  • Required additional actions to view the content (such as more clicks or agreeing to terms)
  • Removed from searches
  • Removed from feed algorithms
  • Removed account
  • Flagged content
  • Delayed content

There are many more. They can all be needed, and they can also devastatingly limit someone’s outreach.

Censorship has a new face: fact-checking

In the last decade, and more noticeably since the pandemic has begun (largely surrounding COVID-19), we’ve encountered a new form of censorship: fact-checking.

There are very strong arguments for fact-checking, but I think they largely boil down to this single question:

Should we allow information that could potentially lead to injury or death to be widely distributed?

There are many pieces of this puzzle to untangle. For fact-checking to even be considered, it means that we, the users, need to have reliable fact-checkers. Unfortunately, we don’t. They have increasingly come under fire and have been shown to fact-check incorrectly [2, 3]. Let’s ignore that for the moment as there is a far greater problem.

For the sake of this discussion let’s make a few assumptions:

  • The content is factually false, and the fact-checkers are correct in this instance
  • The content has potential negative health consequences
  • By the time the fact-checkers found this content, it has already been seen by some amount of people or is already known by some amount of people

Why shouldn’t we censor it? The answer is in Robert Cialdini’s work on Scarcity:

“Although much data exist on our reactions to various kinds of potentially censorable material—media violence, pornography, radical political rhetoric—there is surprisingly little evidence as to our reactions to the act of censoring them. Fortunately, the results of the few studies that have been done on the topic are highly consistent. Almost invariably, our response to the banning of information is a greater desire to receive that information and a more favorable attitude toward it than before the ban.

The intriguing thing about the effects of censoring information is not that audience members want to have the information more than they did before; that seems natural. Rather, it is that they come to believe in the information more, even though they haven’t received it. For example, when University of North Carolina students learned that a speech opposing coed dorms on campus would be banned, they became more opposed to the idea of coed dorms. Thus, without ever hearing the speech, they became more sympathetic to its argument. This raises the worrisome possibility that especially clever individuals holding a weak or unpopular position can get us to agree with that position by arranging to have their message restricted. The irony is that for such people—members of fringe political groups, for example—the most effective strategy may not be to publicize their unpopular views, but to get those views officially censored and then to publicize the censorship. Perhaps the authors of this country’s Constitution were acting as much as sophisticated social psychologists as staunch civil libertarians when they wrote the remarkably permissive free-speech provision of the First Amendment. By refusing to restrain freedom of speech, they may have been attempting to minimize the chance that new political notions would win support via the irrational course of psychological reactance."

Robert Cialdini, Influence, Chapter 7: Scarcity

When I read this it took me a minute to let it fully sink in. It meant that censorship was far worse than I thought.

This means that any form of censorship is doing the exact opposite of its intention. Censoring medical professionals, politicians, or scientists, regardless of their merit, will actually strengthen the resolve in their claims. Robert Cialdini backs up this claim with multiple studies which can be found in the book. Incredibly, this book written nearly 40 years ago is so defining in modern dilemmas.

Gaining momentum

Just recently the Royal Society (prestigious independent scientific academy of the UK) released an article cautioning “against censorship of scientific misinformation online” [4]. Specifically:

“This is important to bear in mind when we are looking to limit scientific misinformation’s harms to society. Clamping down on claims outside the consensus may seem desirable, but it can hamper the scientific process and force genuinely malicious content underground."

  • Professor Frank Kelly FRS

The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union, defender of civil rights) has also pointed out that censorship removes transparency, historical records (which can and have been used in courts of law), and the ability to study [5].

The EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation, nonprofit defending digital privacy, free speech, and innovation) has recently created an entire website to deal with censorship: Online Censorship.

Clearly, more and more organizations are speaking up, both from within the scientific community and within the civil rights community.

What this all means

You may have seen the recent controversy over Joe Rogan and Spotify [6], and the attempts to censor Joe Rogan by Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. While it is easy to understand why Neil Young was so upset, this approach is simply misguided as illustrated above. It is likely that this will both increase the popularity and liking of Joe Rogan’s podcast.

Joe Rogan, in response, committed to bring a more balanced view in future podcasts. I think this is a better approach than censorship. Letting people hear both sides of a topic increases transparency and reduces psychological reactance.

There are a few times and places where censorship makes sense. There is arguably no time and place where fact-checking should result in censorship, for a variety of reasons, but primarily because of the Scarcity principle which results in the censored material increasing popularity.


  1. Interpretation: Freedom of Speech and the Press | The National Constitution Center
  2. Facebook versus the BMJ: when fact checking goes wrong | The BMJ
  3. Checking PolitiFact’s Fact-Checks
  4. Royal Society cautions against censorship of scientific misinformation online | Royal Society
  5. News & Commentary | American Civil Liberties Union
  6. Spotify Is Removing Neil Young Songs After He Complains of ‘Misinformation’