Contagious Protests

Lambert here: No, not that contagion. (A fine example of social media “incentivising street protests that spread across borders” is the K-Pop international fan base intervening in the United States in favor of “Black Lives Matter.” A less obvious example is a global spread of tactics fueled by YouTube and other video platforms: Ukrainian trebuchets redesigned for Hong Kong’s materials; images Hong Kong’s phalanx formations redistributed in the United States.)

By Rabah Arezki, Chief Economist for Middle East and North Africa Region, World Bank, Alou Adesse Dama, Ph.D Candidate, CERDI, Simeon Djankov, Policy Director, Financial Markets Group, London School of Economics, and Ha Nguyen, Economist in the World Bank’s chief economist office for the Middle East and North Africa region. Originally published at VoxEU.

History provides examples of media incentivising street protests that spread across borders. The popular discontent that ended communism in Eastern Europe began in Poland in the early 1980s and swept through the region. Radio Free Europe played a critical role as a vehicle for the spread of the information about protests and catalysed its spillovers across borders (Puddington 2000), as did a network of radio stations of the Catholic Church (Stehle 1982).

Fast forward 30 years to the wave of street protests that sparked the Arab Spring in 2011 following the death of a Tunisian street vendor who set himself ablaze – after having been harassed and humiliated by municipal officials (Baldwin 2011). These events established social media as the new medium for the spread of protests. In 2019, a second wave of protests that started in Soudan and Algeria spread to other Arab countries including Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq; eventually resulting in a global contagion of protests spanning from Chile to Russia to Hong Kong.

In our recent research (Arezki et al. 2020), we explore spillovers of spontaneous street protests across countries, with social media acting as the catalyst. We use data on non-violent and unorganized demonstrations, as well as their coverage in news media, for 207 countries for the period 2000 to 2020. Social media penetration in the source and destination of protests leads to protest spillovers between countries.

Protests are defined in the dataset as “non-violent demonstrations, involving typically unorganized action by members of society”. This category covers peaceful protests, protests with interventions (e.g. arrests), and protests in which excessive force was used against protesters (e.g. causing injuries and deaths). This definition does not include violent demonstrations and mob violence.

We construct an alternative measure of protests capturing the intensity of media chatter around protests. The rationale for the news-based measure of protests is that it allows us to significantly expand the scope of the data on protests over space and time. The news data are from Dow Jones FACTIVA, which is a global repository of over one billion articles published across the world and reported in 28 different languages.

The news-based protest data provide us with a balanced panel for 207 countries. The evolution of the measure is presented in Figure 1 in monthly frequency (top panel). We also illustrate the evolution of the measure for Middle East and North Africa countries (bottom panel). Both panels show a clear uptick in the chatter about protests around the Arab Spring in 2011 and the second wave of protests that started in 2019. The uptick in the top panel around 2003 reflects global protests against the war in Iraq.

Figure 1 News-based measure of street protests

a) Global perspective

b) Middle East and North Africa countries

Sources: Dow Jones FACTIVA and authors’ own calculations.
Notes: Middle East and North Africa region includes Algeria, Bahrain, Djibouti, the Arab Republic of Egypt, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the Syrian Arab Republic, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and the Republic of Yemen.

We use the number of Facebook subscribers as a fraction of the population to capture social media penetration in a country. Among different platforms of social media, Facebook accounts for the lion’s share in pretty much all world regions.

Our results point to significant spillovers of foreign protests to domestic protests with an important role of social media. Between countries with social media penetration larger than 30% (measured in 2018), a one standard deviation increase in foreign protests, which is 3.1 more protests per million persons, leads to 1.2 more domestic protests per million persons. This is 37% of the standard deviation of a country’s monthly protests. To put this in perspective, at the onset of the Arab Spring protests in Tunisia jumped from zero in November 2010 to close to 15 protests per million persons in January 2011, which is five times the standard deviation of protests in our sample.

Social media is found to play a significant role in driving spillover of protest using the news-based measure. We observe large and consistent news-based protest spillovers for countries with strong media penetration. Between countries with social media penetration larger than 30% (measured in 2018), a one standard deviation increase in previous month’s foreign news-based protests, which is 0.6 percentage point increase, leads to a 1.8 percentage point increase in the contemporaneous month of its own news-based protests. This is equivalent to about three times the standard deviation of news-based protests.

Social media make it much easier for protesters in one country to raise their voice, and for sympathisers in other countries to read, learn and emulate. The results suggest parallel learning between streets of nations alongside the previously documented learning between governments.

References available at the original.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Skip Intro

    If I were wearing my foil hat today, I would wonder whether the mention of Radio Free Europe at the beginning was code to remind us that the Arab Spring protests and many others may be aided by strong state actors, and both the social media and news coverage can be, and regularly are manipulated. This undermines the claim of spontaneous viral spread, since the correlations are just 2 prongs of the same attack.

    1. ambrit

      I noticed the inclusion of RFE as well. That was a give away as to the ideological biases of the authors. Anyone who views RFE as anything other than a propaganda arm of the American State is delusional. RFE was specifically set up to “combat Communism.”
      I would not expect to see RFE or any of it’s siblings agitating for anything even close to actual freedom.
      If I read the article correctly, the authors are setting up the parameters for formalizing the State manipulation of “social media,” along the same lines as when the state took control of ‘traditional’ media during the First World War and after.
      I remember reading that the Egyptian government shut down internet based ‘social media’ during their brush with the “Arab Spring.”
      America, of course had “PropOrNot,” and the “Fake News” ‘containment’ programs.

      1. Skip Intro

        And come to think of it, it was reported that some paramilitary ‘student’ group from Ukraine went to HK to observe and advise. It would be interesting if the trebuchet design was passed on directly.

        And of course believing Facebook numbers is a methodological error, though the fake users may still be a proxy for internet connectedness.

        1. ambrit

          The trebuchet story is wizard.
          People often forget that old methods of doing things are often adequate to the task and usually much cheaper to perform. Many, many times, new and improved is code speak for more expensive.

      2. Basil Pesto

        I noticed the inclusion of RFE as well. That was a give away as to the ideological biases of the authors. Anyone who views RFE as anything other than a propaganda arm of the American State is delusional. RFE was specifically set up to “combat Communism.”

        The mention of RFE at the beginning of the essay doesn’t contradict this at all. In fact, it supports it.

    2. Carolinian

      Feeling foily myself and would agree that protests tend to spread when the media choose to pay attention. Since these days the media tend to only pay attention when the cause is media approved that can make, not just the Arab Spring protests, but perhaps our own BLM protests a mixed message that may be serving TPTB goals.

      And given this media environment it’s possible that those who are upset and inclined to protest simply wait until media interest is triggered by some perhaps unrelated external event. There was a story about Portland in Links this morning and out of curiosity I looked up the AA population of Portland which is around 6 percent in a state where the black population is around 2 percent. And yet Portlanders are protesting every night for weeks despite being–one must assume–overwhelmingly white. Are their police really that bad or are they just into protesting where convenient rather than heading, Freedom Rider style, to the inner big cities?

      1. Anarcissie

        There is a change going on in which transmissions from, to, and through cell phones and other communicating computers can bypass fixed servers and thus the gatekeeping currently performed by Facebook and other state-oriented parties. If such as Facebook and Twitter become chokepoints, the tendency will be to to employ distributed media developments. I take it the once unlikely choice on the part of the New York Times to show extensive footage of police beating protesters may have something to do with this. That is, the news was going to be passed along anyway; best to get ahead of it and neutralize it if possible.

      2. Generalfeldmarschall von Hindenburg

        As a resident for 30 plus years, I can tell you; We like to protest. It’s a thing here going way back. We don’t have a huge population of recent african descent. Most of the rioters are white as can be. I think most of them are earnest. Then also it’s attracting some supremely stupid people who just wanna F stuff up. They tried to destroy a statue of a bull elk for heaven’s sake.

    3. drumlin woodchuckles

      The first introduction of a social media meme may not be spontaneous, but its subsequent spread very well could be. A billion Social Digimedia Device Addicts are on their devices 25 hours a day, 8 days a week. The whole digital social mediasphere is a vast undefended garden waiting for wave after waves of of digital kudzu, purple loosetrife, water hyacinth, etc. to invade it and cover it over before the next wave starts and propagates.

      A question arises . . . what do all these protesters do between protests? Do they meet to share information? Do they try to inform eachother about how to inform eachother about factpiles, databases, and analytical frameworks to help themselves and eachother decide what agendas they should evolve for themselves and how to advance those agendas through the ordinary actions of ho hum drum daily living when they are not at a high drama protest?

  2. RWood

    Media must be seen as threads, now 5Gs stronger than masked marvels can make them.
    The threads have intersectionality with other pools of power, which own threads, or rent them, or use them, passing over, sometimes, often, never.
    Threads are pathways leading to and fro. Place to place, person to persons.
    The use of threads as constraint is old.
    The aether has been scaled before for threads.
    And the use of threat is a tightening of many threads in throats.
    And then there are the judicious and savants cutting threads that hinder policy.
    And then the baiters, trolling, setting their miles of threads into nets.
    leaving more threads

    1. Massinissa

      Forgive me but, I seem to have missed the point of what you’re talking about? I don’t mean to be rude, but unless there’s something I’m missing, your comment mostly sounds like word salad.

      1. Generalfeldmarschall von Hindenburg

        Spontaneous poetry. Leave a place in your heart for poetry. I don’t know what it’s about. But it’s art. Don’t question it.

        1. ambrit

          Not only is it art, but it is also a detailed instruction manual for a yarn diagram. (In 3D no less.)

      2. drumlin woodchuckles

        Certain levels and layers of the reality we live in may be viewed as 3-D cat’s cradle spider-webs all stretched drumhead tight. Any vibration or disturbance to any thread or node sets the whole cat’s cradle spider web vibrating. And every spider has a feeler-leg resting on a thread or node, waiting to read or analyze any vibration it senses. And maybe then send further vibrations out into the webwork.

  3. witters

    “Spontaneous poetry. Leave a place in your heart for poetry. I don’t know what it’s about. But it’s art. Don’t question it.”

    I believe Tommaso Marinetti thought the same thing.

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