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1984bravenewworld_draft.pdf

Media censorship is a hallmark of authoritarian regimes. We conduct a field experiment in China to examine whether providing access to an uncensored Internet leads citizens to acquire politically sensitive information, and whether they are affected by the information. We track subjects’ media consumption, beliefs regarding the media, economic beliefs, political attitudes, and behaviors over 18 months. We find 4 main results: (i) free access alone does not induce subjects to acquire politically sensitive information; (ii) temporary encouragement leads to a persistent increase in acquisition, indicating that demand is not permanently low; (iii) acquisition brings broad, substantial, and persistent changes to knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, and intended behaviors; and (iv) social transmission of information is statistically significant but small in magnitude. We calibrate a simple model to show that, due to the low demand for, and moderate social transmission of, uncensored information, China’s censorship apparatus may remain robust for a large number of citizens receiving unencouraged access to an uncensored Internet.

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