Predicting riots using social media

In addition to the identified factors from research coming out of the 1960s and 1970s, one sociologist suggests social media activity can show how riots and protests spread:

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?

“Save Darfur” social media campaign doesn’t accomplish much

While social media is credited for helping the Arab Spring movement, social media movements don’t always succeed. Take the “Save Darfur” campaign as an example:

Focusing on the Save Darfur cause, which took Facebook by storm between May 2007 and January 2010, the team looked at the donation and recruitment activity of over one million members. Roughly 80 percent of the members joined via a referral, whereas only 20 percent joined of their own accord.Furthermore, of the one million-plus members, 99.76 percent failed to ever actually donate any money. 72.19 percent didn’t recruit anyone else, entirely missing one of the main advantages of online activism: the ability to reach out to a very large and connected audience…

“The study is an important counter-balance to unbridled enthusiasm for the powers of social media,” said UC San Diego’s Lewis. “There’s no inherent magic. Social media can activate interpersonal ties but won’t necessarily turn ordinary citizens into hyper-activists.”…

The research was published in Sociological Science and was co-authored by Kevin Lewis, of the University of California, San Diego’s department of sociology, Kurt Gray of the department of psychology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and Jens Meierhenrich, department of international relations, London School of Economics.

The advantage of social media for social movements is that it is easier to attract attention. Information can spread quickly and social movements can become popular things to support. The catch, however, is one that always seems to plague modern social movements: once people are informed, how exactly can they be convinced to actually act? Social media makes the bar for joining online quite low but that doesn’t translate into much physical action. Another example is the Kony 2012 campaign: lots of attention and views but limited follow-through.

Perhaps the difference between Save Darfur and the Arab Spring is that physical action was already occurring in places like Tunisia and Egypt and social media helped fan the flames. But, starting everything through social media is a tall order.

The importance of public squares for recent revolutionary activity

Public squares have played prominent roles in recent revolutionary efforts across the world, including in Kiev:

Not all revolutions have been centered in public squares, but many recent ones have, including several in former Soviet states. Georgia’s Rose Revolution in 2003 toppled President Eduard Shevardnadze from Tbilisi’s Freedom Square. Kyrgyz protesters seized Ala-Too Square from police in 2005, then promptly stormed the nearby presidential palace and ousted long-time President Askar Akayev. Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004 took place in the same Independence Square where protesters have now engaged in bloody clashes with government forces, wringing promises from President Viktor Yanukovych for early elections and a return to the 2004 constitution…

Cairo’s layout also made Tahrir Square the perfect place to launch a revolution. Centrally located in Egypt’s largest city, Tahrir sits near the Egyptian parliament, Mubarak’s political party headquarters, the presidential palace, numerous foreign embassies, and hotels filled with international journalists to broadcast footage of the protests for audiences around the world. After Mubarak stepped down, large public squares in other Arab capitals became revolutionary battlegrounds as well.

For Libya, Tripoli’s main public square has come to symbolize the success of the country’s 2011 revolution. Originally named Piazza Italia under Italian colonial rule (Western European-inspired central squares are a common theme in this part of the world) and then Independence Square by the Libyan monarchy, it had been renamed “Green Square” after Muammar Qaddafi’s political ideology. Libya’s transitional government promptly renamed it Martyrs’ Square after those who died fighting Qaddafi’s regime in Libya’s civil war.

But these public spaces don’t always survive the revolutionary moments that make them famous. Bahrain’s most prominent public square (or circle) met the same fate as the uprising that once filled it. After demonstrators marched to Manana’s Pearl Roundabout in March 2011, the Bahraini government retook the circle in a bloody crackdown, then tore up the grass with backhoes and demolished the central Pearl Monument to reassert control.

The article then goes on to discuss how several totalitarian countries have moved their capitals in recent years which cuts down on the ability of the masses in more populous cities to effectively gather and demonstrate.

This idea also seems to be behind the logic of those – including numerous sociologists – who call for more public space in the United States. Without such spaces near centers of power, average people don’t have the ability to gather in large numbers and utilize their numeric force that can provide a counter to elite political and economic influence. The Occupy movement tried to utilize such spaces for this very purpose: bring their protests to the heart of big cities and business districts in such a way that those they wanted to reach would be forced to respond. But, when more spaces are privatized or off-limits to protesting (like public spaces around political conventions), people have less ability to demonstrate.

Evaluating self-immolation as a protest strategy

As the Arab Spring movements of this year began with an act of self-immolation in Tunisia, we might ask this question: is this an effective strategy for protest?

Self-immolation as a form of political protest is far more common than you might think. It’s particularly prevalent in countries that are home to many Buddhists and Hindus, who have long ascetic traditions that sometimes involve radical acts of physical self-abnegation. In 1990, for example, more than 200 upper-caste Indians set themselves on fire to protest government plans to reserve spots at university for people from the lower castes. Sharon Erickson Nepstad, an American sociologist who studies nonviolent resistance movements, says that Mahatma Gandhi based his theory of civil disobedience on the Hindu concept of tapasya, the embrace of suffering in the service of a higher cause. (The word literally means “heat.”) People sometimes forget, Nepstad says, that Gandhi regarded his activist followers as “nonviolent warriors,” ready to die for their cause even as they rejected attacks against others. (Intriguingly, as Nepstad points out, those three Americans who killed themselves to protest the Vietnam War were two Quakers and a left-wing Catholic, all of them members of avowedly pacifist groups.)…

The history of self-immolation as a political tool suggests that it is a highly volatile one. Setting oneself on fire can sometimes ignite a huge political protest, but there’s no guarantee that it will. Thich Quang Duc’s suicide resonated precisely because he and his supporters carefully calibrated their efforts to attract as much publicity as possible, even handing out prepared leaflets outlining their demands to bystanders. But they may have been the exception to the rule. Most self-immolators don’t seem to think that far ahead. Mohammed Bouazizi, whose suicide had a far greater political impact than that of any of his Arab Spring emulators, clearly had no inkling of the enormous changes his act would unleash.

Whether a political suicide succeeds in igniting mass activism seems to depend largely on the circumstances of the moment. Jan Palach, the Czech student who set himself on fire in 1969 to protest the Soviet invasion of his homeland the previous year, first came up with a harebrained scheme to occupy a government radio station before deciding at the last minute to burn himself in Wenceslas Square. Had he gone ahead with his initial (even more quixotic) plan, he might be remembered rather differently today…

Self-immolators make a tricky fit with established political organizations: Few leaders are likely to court popularity by inviting their followers to resort to public suicide. The Tibetan monks offer a case in point. Bhuchung Tsering, vice president of the International Campaign for Tibet in Washington, D.C., says that the suicides pose a “moral dilemma” for the Tibetan opposition in exile, which is doing its best to dissuade would-be self-immolations even as it acknowledges the intense sense of desperation that appears to be driving them.

The answer appears to be not typically but perhaps it is helpful in generating a larger movement under the right conditions. This could be a catalyst for larger action but not necessarily. Is there ever a backlash against such an action?

The article doesn’t say about how often this has been tried in the Western world in order to call attention to a particular issue or in order to galvanize a movement. Is this generally a theologically-motivated act?