Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-99c86f546-kpmwg Total loading time: 0.253 Render date: 2021-11-27T15:55:03.240Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "metricsAbstractViews": false, "figures": true, "newCiteModal": false, "newCitedByModal": true, "newEcommerce": true, "newUsageEvents": true }

Online Repression and Self-Censorship: Evidence from Southeast Asia

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 April 2019

Elvin Ong*
Elvin Ong, Centre for Southeast Asia Research, Institute of Asian Research, School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, University of British Columbia, Canada
*Corresponding author. Email:


Governments around the world have crafted new laws to threaten, arrest, prosecute and incarcerate online political activists. While the primary effect of online repression is to silence criticism and forestall collective action, a secondary effect is to induce self-censorship among the masses. Yet scant research examines how self-censorship works, nor discusses its implications for entrenching authoritarianism and encouraging democratic backsliding. This article proposes a simple expected utility model of self-censorship, arguing that citizens will more likely self-censor when the expected costs of online political expression outweigh its benefits. Analysing the fourth wave of the Asian Barometer survey of 10,216 respondents across eight Southeast Asian countries, I find that higher income politically engaged social media users are indeed less likely to express their political opinions. Additionally, this correlation holds in states where online repression is most severe, but is non-existent in countries where online repression is moderate or low.

Copyright © The Author 2019. Published by Government and Opposition Limited and Cambridge University Press

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


Amnesty International (2006) Socialist Republic of Viet Nam: A Tightening Net: Web-Based Repression and Censorship. October, Scholar
Association for Progressive Communications (2017) Unshackling Expression: A Study on Laws Criminalising Expression Online in Asia. India. Global Information Society Watch.Google Scholar
Barr, MD and Skrbiš, Z (2009) Constructing Singapore: Elitism, Ethnicity and the Nation-Building Project. Copenhagen: NIAS Press.Google Scholar
Bermeo, N (2016) On Democratic Backsliding. Journal of Democracy 27(1), 519.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bhasin, T and Gandhi, J (2013) Timing and Targeting of State Repression in Authoritarian Elections. Electoral Studies 32(4), 620631.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Boyd, DM and Ellison, NB (2007) Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 13(1), 210230.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bright, J et al. (2018) Does Campaigning on Social Media Make a Difference? Evidence from Candidate Use of Twitter during the 2015 and 2017 UK Elections. arXiv:1710.07087v3 [cs.S1], 27 July. Scholar
Carey, SC (2009) Protest, Repression and Political Regimes: An Empirical Analysis of Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa. New York: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Carpini, MXD and Keeter, S (1993) Measuring Political Knowledge: Putting First Things First. American Journal of Political Science 37(4), 1179.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Chia, L (2016) Teenage Blogger Amos Yee Faces 8 New Charges. Channelnewsasia, 26 May, Scholar
Chong, E (2015) Amos Yee Charged over Remarks against Christianity and Offending Viewers of his Video on Lee Kuan Yew. Straits Times, 31 March, Scholar
Davenport, C, Johnston, H and McClurg Mueller, C (eds) (2005) Repression and Mobilization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar
Deibert, R (2015) Cyberspace Under Siege. Journal of Democracy 26(3), 6478.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Deibert, R, Palfrey, J, Rohozinski, R and Zittrain, J (eds) (2012) Access Contested: Security, Identity, and Resistance in Asian Cyberspace Information Revolution and Global Politics. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
Diamond, LJ and Plattner, MF (eds) (2012) Liberation Technology: Social Media and the Struggle for Democracy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.Google Scholar
Duch, RM and Stevenson, RT (2008) The Economic Vote: How Political and Economic Institutions Condition Election Results. New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Duong, M (2017) Blogging Three Ways in Vietnam's Political Blogosphere. Contemporary Southeast Asia 39(2), 373392.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Evans, HK and Clark, JH (2016) ‘You Tweet Like a Girl!’: How Female Candidates Campaign on Twitter. American Politics Research 44(2), 326352.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Farrell, H (2012) The Consequences of the Internet for Politics. Annual Review of Political Science 15(1), 3552.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Financial Times (2018) Thai Junta Opens Investigation into Opposition Party. 18 August, Scholar
Freedom House (2017) Freedom on the Net 2017. Scholar
Gainous, J, Wagner, KM and Ziegler, CE (2018) Digital Media and Political Opposition in Authoritarian Systems: Russia's 2011 and 2016 Duma Elections. Democratization 25(2), 209226.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Galston, WA (2001) Political Knowledge, Political Engagement, and Civic Education. Annual Review of Political Science 4(1), 217234.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gandhi, J (2018) The Institutional Roots of Democratic Backsliding. Journal of Politics 81(1), e1116.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
George, C (2007) Consolidating Authoritarian Rule: Calibrated Coercion in Singapore. Pacific Review 20(2), 127145.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gerschewski, J (2013) The Three Pillars of Stability: Legitimation, Repression, and Co-Optation in Autocratic Regimes. Democratization 20(1), 1338.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gerschewski, J (2018) Legitimacy in Autocracies: Oxymoron or Essential Feature? Perspectives on Politics 16(3), 652665.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Ginsburg, T and Moustafa, T (2008) Rule by Law: The Politics of Courts in Authoritarian Regimes. New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Goh, D (2015) Narrowing the Knowledge Gap: The Role of Alternative Online Media in an Authoritarian Press System. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly 92(4), 877897.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Greitens, SC (2013) Authoritarianism Online: What Can We Learn from Internet Data in Nondemocracies? PS: Political Science and Politics 46(2), 262270.Google Scholar
Hellmeier, S (2016) The Dictator's Digital Toolkit: Explaining Variation in Internet Filtering in Authoritarian Regimes. Politics and Policy 44(6), 11581191.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Holmes, O (2016) Thai Woman Charged with Sedition Over Photo of ‘Provocative’ Red Bowl. Guardian, 30 March, Scholar
Human Rights Watch (2017) Thailand: Drop Charges for Critical Facebook Posts. 9 August, Scholar
Human Rights Watch (2018) World Report 2018: Rights Trends in Vietnam. Scholar
Jayasuriya, K (1996) The Rule of Law and Capitalism in East Asia. Pacific Review 9(3), 367388.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Jones, E and Matthijs, M (2017) Democracy without Solidarity: Political Dysfunction in Hard Times. Introduction to Special Issue. Government and Opposition: An International Journal of Comparative Politics 52(2), 185210.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
King, G, Pan, J and Roberts, ME (2013) How Censorship in China Allows Government Criticism but Silences Collective Expression. American Political Science Review 107(2), 326343.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
King, G, Pan, J and Roberts, ME (2014) Reverse-Engineering Censorship in China: Randomized Experimentation and Participant Observation. Science 345(6199), 1251722.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
King, G, Pan, J and Roberts, ME (2017) How the Chinese Government Fabricates Social Media Posts for Strategic Distraction, Not Engaged Argument. American Political Science Review 111(3), 484501.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Kuran, T (1991) Now Out of Never: The Element of Surprise in the East European Revolution of 1989. World Politics 44(1), 748.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Levitsky, S and Ziblatt, D (2018) How Democracies Die, 1st edn. New York: Crown.Google Scholar
Liu, Y (2014) Controlling Cyberspace in Malaysia: Motivations and Constraints. Asian Survey 54(4), 801823.Google Scholar
Loury, G (1994) Self-Censorship in Public Discourse: A Theory of ‘Political Correctness’ and Related Phenomena. Rationality and Society 6(4), 428461.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Lynch, M (2011) After Egypt: The Limits and Promise of Online Challenges to the Authoritarian Arab State. Perspectives on Politics 9(2), 301310.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Mauzy, DK and Milne, RS (2002) Singapore Politics under the People's Action Party. London: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Mechkova, V, Lührmann, A and Lindberg, SI (2017) How Much Democratic Backsliding? Journal of Democracy 28(4), 162169.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Mellon, J and Prosser, C (2017) Twitter and Facebook Are Not Representative of the General Population: Political Attitudes and Demographics of British Social Media Users. Research and Politics 4(3), 19.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Nadeau, R, Lewis-Beck, MS and Bélanger, É (2013) Economics and Elections Revisited. Comparative Political Studies 46(5), 551573.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
National Public Radio (2019) To the Dismay of Free Speech Advocates, Vietnam Rolls Out Controversial Cyber Law. 1 January, Scholar
Nyblade, B, O'Mahony, A and Sinpeng, A (2015) Social Media Data and the Dynamics of Thai Protests. Asian Journal of Social Science 43(5), 545566.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Pearce, K and Hajizada, A (2014) No Laughing Matter: Humor as a Means of Dissent in the Digital Era: The Case of Authoritarian Azerbaijan. Demokratizatsiya 22(1), 6785.Google Scholar
Pepinsky, T (2017) Southeast Asia: Voting Against Disorder. Journal of Democracy 28(2), 120131.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Rajah, J (2012) Authoritarian Rule of Law: Legislation, Discourse and Legitimacy in Singapore. New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Reuter, OJ and Szakonyi, D (2015) Online Social Media and Political Awareness in Authoritarian Regimes. British Journal of Political Science 45(1), 2951.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Rodan, G (1998) The Internet and Political Control in Singapore. Political Science Quarterly 113(1), 6389.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Ruijgrok, K (2017) From the Web to the Streets: Internet and Protests under Authoritarian Regimes. Democratization 24(3), 498520.Google Scholar
Senawong, J (2018) NCPO Denies Trying to Bully Thanathorn or Pro-Democracy Activists over FB Posts. Nation, 3 August, Scholar
Seow, BY (2017) Court Papers Set out AGC's Arguments for Bringing Contempt of Court Case Against Li Shengwu. Straits Times, 8 December, Scholar
Sim, W (2015) Blogger Ordered to Pay PM $150K in Damages. Straits Times, 18 December, Scholar
Sinpeng, A (2013) State Repression in Cyberspace: The Case of Thailand. Asian Politics and Policy 5(3), 421440.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Sinpeng, A (2017) Participatory Inequality in Online and Offline Political Engagement in Thailand. Pacific Affairs 90(2), 253274.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Slater, D (2012) Strong-State Democratization in Malaysia and Singapore. Journal of Democracy 23(2), 1933.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Tang, M and Huhe, N (2014) Alternative Framing: The Effect of the Internet on Political Support in Authoritarian China. International Political Science Review 35(5), 559576.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Tapsell, R (2019) The Smartphone as the ‘Weapon of the Weak’: Assessing the Role of Communication Technologies in Malaysia's Regime Change. Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs 37(3), 929.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Tremewan, C (1994) The Political Economy of Social Control in Singapore. New York: St Martin's Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Waldner, D and Lust, E (2018) Unwelcome Change: Coming to Terms with Democratic Backsliding. Annual Review of Political Science 21(1), 93113.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Wall Street Journal (2015) Malaysia's 1MDB Decoded: How Millions Went Missing. 22 November, Scholar
Wong, PT (2018) AGC's Order to Serve Papers on Li Shengwu Should be Voided, his Lawyers Say. Today, 4 January, Scholar
Cited by

Send article to Kindle

To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Online Repression and Self-Censorship: Evidence from Southeast Asia
Available formats

Send article to Dropbox

To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

Online Repression and Self-Censorship: Evidence from Southeast Asia
Available formats

Send article to Google Drive

To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

Online Repression and Self-Censorship: Evidence from Southeast Asia
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *