Skip to main content Accessibility help

Online Repression and Self-Censorship: Evidence from Southeast Asia

  • Elvin Ong (a1)


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.

  • View HTML
    • 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


Corresponding author

*Corresponding author. Email:


Hide All
Amnesty International (2006) Socialist Republic of Viet Nam: A Tightening Net: Web-Based Repression and Censorship. October,
Association for Progressive Communications (2017) Unshackling Expression: A Study on Laws Criminalising Expression Online in Asia. India. Global Information Society Watch.
Barr, MD and Skrbiš, Z (2009) Constructing Singapore: Elitism, Ethnicity and the Nation-Building Project. Copenhagen: NIAS Press.
Bermeo, N (2016) On Democratic Backsliding. Journal of Democracy 27(1), 519.
Bhasin, T and Gandhi, J (2013) Timing and Targeting of State Repression in Authoritarian Elections. Electoral Studies 32(4), 620631.
Boyd, DM and Ellison, NB (2007) Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 13(1), 210230.
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.
Carey, SC (2009) Protest, Repression and Political Regimes: An Empirical Analysis of Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa. New York: Routledge.
Carpini, MXD and Keeter, S (1993) Measuring Political Knowledge: Putting First Things First. American Journal of Political Science 37(4), 1179.
Chia, L (2016) Teenage Blogger Amos Yee Faces 8 New Charges. Channelnewsasia, 26 May,
Chong, E (2015) Amos Yee Charged over Remarks against Christianity and Offending Viewers of his Video on Lee Kuan Yew. Straits Times, 31 March,
Davenport, C, Johnston, H and McClurg Mueller, C (eds) (2005) Repression and Mobilization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Deibert, R (2015) Cyberspace Under Siege. Journal of Democracy 26(3), 6478.
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.
Diamond, LJ and Plattner, MF (eds) (2012) Liberation Technology: Social Media and the Struggle for Democracy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Duch, RM and Stevenson, RT (2008) The Economic Vote: How Political and Economic Institutions Condition Election Results. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Duong, M (2017) Blogging Three Ways in Vietnam's Political Blogosphere. Contemporary Southeast Asia 39(2), 373392.
Evans, HK and Clark, JH (2016) ‘You Tweet Like a Girl!’: How Female Candidates Campaign on Twitter. American Politics Research 44(2), 326352.
Farrell, H (2012) The Consequences of the Internet for Politics. Annual Review of Political Science 15(1), 3552.
Financial Times (2018) Thai Junta Opens Investigation into Opposition Party. 18 August,
Freedom House (2017) Freedom on the Net 2017.
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.
Galston, WA (2001) Political Knowledge, Political Engagement, and Civic Education. Annual Review of Political Science 4(1), 217234.
Gandhi, J (2018) The Institutional Roots of Democratic Backsliding. Journal of Politics 81(1), e1116.
George, C (2007) Consolidating Authoritarian Rule: Calibrated Coercion in Singapore. Pacific Review 20(2), 127145.
Gerschewski, J (2013) The Three Pillars of Stability: Legitimation, Repression, and Co-Optation in Autocratic Regimes. Democratization 20(1), 1338.
Gerschewski, J (2018) Legitimacy in Autocracies: Oxymoron or Essential Feature? Perspectives on Politics 16(3), 652665.
Ginsburg, T and Moustafa, T (2008) Rule by Law: The Politics of Courts in Authoritarian Regimes. New York: Cambridge University Press.
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.
Greitens, SC (2013) Authoritarianism Online: What Can We Learn from Internet Data in Nondemocracies? PS: Political Science and Politics 46(2), 262270.
Hellmeier, S (2016) The Dictator's Digital Toolkit: Explaining Variation in Internet Filtering in Authoritarian Regimes. Politics and Policy 44(6), 11581191.
Holmes, O (2016) Thai Woman Charged with Sedition Over Photo of ‘Provocative’ Red Bowl. Guardian, 30 March,
Human Rights Watch (2017) Thailand: Drop Charges for Critical Facebook Posts. 9 August,
Human Rights Watch (2018) World Report 2018: Rights Trends in Vietnam.
Jayasuriya, K (1996) The Rule of Law and Capitalism in East Asia. Pacific Review 9(3), 367388.
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.
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.
King, G, Pan, J and Roberts, ME (2014) Reverse-Engineering Censorship in China: Randomized Experimentation and Participant Observation. Science 345(6199), 1251722.
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.
Kuran, T (1991) Now Out of Never: The Element of Surprise in the East European Revolution of 1989. World Politics 44(1), 748.
Levitsky, S and Ziblatt, D (2018) How Democracies Die, 1st edn. New York: Crown.
Liu, Y (2014) Controlling Cyberspace in Malaysia: Motivations and Constraints. Asian Survey 54(4), 801823.
Loury, G (1994) Self-Censorship in Public Discourse: A Theory of ‘Political Correctness’ and Related Phenomena. Rationality and Society 6(4), 428461.
Lynch, M (2011) After Egypt: The Limits and Promise of Online Challenges to the Authoritarian Arab State. Perspectives on Politics 9(2), 301310.
Mauzy, DK and Milne, RS (2002) Singapore Politics under the People's Action Party. London: Routledge.
Mechkova, V, Lührmann, A and Lindberg, SI (2017) How Much Democratic Backsliding? Journal of Democracy 28(4), 162169.
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.
Nadeau, R, Lewis-Beck, MS and Bélanger, É (2013) Economics and Elections Revisited. Comparative Political Studies 46(5), 551573.
National Public Radio (2019) To the Dismay of Free Speech Advocates, Vietnam Rolls Out Controversial Cyber Law. 1 January,
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.
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.
Pepinsky, T (2017) Southeast Asia: Voting Against Disorder. Journal of Democracy 28(2), 120131.
Rajah, J (2012) Authoritarian Rule of Law: Legislation, Discourse and Legitimacy in Singapore. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Reuter, OJ and Szakonyi, D (2015) Online Social Media and Political Awareness in Authoritarian Regimes. British Journal of Political Science 45(1), 2951.
Rodan, G (1998) The Internet and Political Control in Singapore. Political Science Quarterly 113(1), 6389.
Ruijgrok, K (2017) From the Web to the Streets: Internet and Protests under Authoritarian Regimes. Democratization 24(3), 498520.
Senawong, J (2018) NCPO Denies Trying to Bully Thanathorn or Pro-Democracy Activists over FB Posts. Nation, 3 August,
Seow, BY (2017) Court Papers Set out AGC's Arguments for Bringing Contempt of Court Case Against Li Shengwu. Straits Times, 8 December,
Sim, W (2015) Blogger Ordered to Pay PM $150K in Damages. Straits Times, 18 December,
Sinpeng, A (2013) State Repression in Cyberspace: The Case of Thailand. Asian Politics and Policy 5(3), 421440.
Sinpeng, A (2017) Participatory Inequality in Online and Offline Political Engagement in Thailand. Pacific Affairs 90(2), 253274.
Slater, D (2012) Strong-State Democratization in Malaysia and Singapore. Journal of Democracy 23(2), 1933.
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.
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.
Tremewan, C (1994) The Political Economy of Social Control in Singapore. New York: St Martin's Press.
Waldner, D and Lust, E (2018) Unwelcome Change: Coming to Terms with Democratic Backsliding. Annual Review of Political Science 21(1), 93113.
Wall Street Journal (2015) Malaysia's 1MDB Decoded: How Millions Went Missing. 22 November,
Wong, PT (2018) AGC's Order to Serve Papers on Li Shengwu Should be Voided, his Lawyers Say. Today, 4 January,


Related content

Powered by UNSILO

Online Repression and Self-Censorship: Evidence from Southeast Asia

  • Elvin Ong (a1)


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.