How does censorship drive conspiratorial beliefs? The roles of information uncertainty and motivated reasoning

Project: Research project

Project Details


This project aims to examine the widely held belief that falsehood thrives in the darkness, using internet censorship in Mainland China as a testing case. We will investigate how exposure to censorship influences an individual’s propensity to accept a special type of falsehood: conspiracy theories (CTs). In recent years, the Chinese society has witnessed an upsurge of CTs, ranging from the claim that the COVID-19 virus originated from an American military base to the belief that Jews control elite politics through secretive organizations like the Freemasons and Illuminati. While the spread of CTs in Western
countries has been extensively studied, comparable research within the context of China is currently lacking.

To address this gap, we will expand upon existing theories of conspiratorial beliefs by incorporating two novel elements: censorship experience and motivated reasoning. We argue that with the removal of online posts, a multitude of broken links will emerge, creating a vast information black hole that can potentially be filled with CTs. Encountering these broken links will induce a heightened sense of information uncertainty, thereby increasing individuals’ inclination to turn to worldview-confirming CTs that align with their pre-existing beliefs.

We will examine these propositions through three studies. Study 1 will involve a population-based survey to examine the formulation of conspiratorial beliefs, taking into account situational and dispositional factors such as censorship experience, perceived uncertainty, perceived morality of censors, ideology, and nationalism. In Study 2, we will conduct an experiment to simulate incidental exposure to censorship and evaluate its immediate influence on conspiratorial thinking. We will further examine the persistence of censorship effects using three follow-up surveys. Drawing on social media data, Study 3 will investigate how censorship sways users’ attitudes and their inclination to share CTs. This observational study can unveil individuals’ spontaneous reactions to censorship without
applying any intervention, which is relatively free of the social desirability bias that self-report surveys and experiments usually are subject to.

By employing a blend of mixed methods and synthesizing multimodal data, this project holds great promise in advancing our understanding of the prevalence of conspiracy theories within a context with strict information control. Through our study, we aim to unveil the nuanced mechanisms behind conspiratorial beliefs, examine the role of information manipulation in shaping public belief systems, and recommend strategies for mitigating conspiratorial beliefs and fostering critical thinking.
StatusNot started
Effective start/end date1/01/2531/12/26


Explore the research topics touched on by this project. These labels are generated based on the underlying awards/grants. Together they form a unique fingerprint.