The most promising method of “predicting” unrest might be through social media. Dan Braha, a professor at the University of Massachusetts and affiliate of the New England Complex Systems Institute, has studied unrest in hundreds of countries and the phenomenon of “contagion,” or how it spreads. In the past, printed newspapers, televisions, and other media played an important role, he said. “Today, the use of Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms is fundamental to the rapid self-organization and spreading of unrest activities—much like the spread of fire in a forest.” And the data from these media can be tracked. Riots, he claims, are certainly foreseeable, but “prediction regarding ‘when’ and ‘where’ becomes more precise on short time scales.”
It sounds like social media is just part of the puzzle here. There are certain underlying conditions mentioned in this article – such as hot weather or precipitating incidents (such as police violence) – but these do not always lead to riots. (In fact, given the inequalities present in many American cities, riots and protests could be considered relatively rare.) Just as with the analysis of the Arab Spring activity, social media does not cause protests or riots but it can help facilitate it. This was reported in Egypt as protestors shared information through social media and even peer-to-peer options. This was also reported in Baltimore as protestors selected places to show up. This is not a new phenomena; riots in the 1960s spread in a contagion like manner and the dispersion could be tracked through news coverage in the New York Times. But, the availability of social media now makes it theoretically possible to watch things develop in real time, an advantage for both protestors and authorities.
Thinking to the future, what happens when protestors make use of non-public social media or peer-to-peer options that cannot be viewed by authorities?