The global spike in protests, tracked in social media and visualized

Red shows "intensity" of protests by country and over time. / Courtesy Recorded Futures

Protests are rising worldwide, according to this visualization produced by the intelligence analysis contractor firm Recorded Future. Their metric records “intensity” of references to protests in online media and social media, with red signifying heavy discussion of protests and blue for little or no discussion.

You can play with the chart here, but the above iteration displays data from all countries over the past year. The countries are ordered by intensity, with the most protest-saturated at the bottom and the least at top. (The graph is too small to fit all country names, so it displays the name of every fifth or so.)

The metric is not perfect, and not all protests are comparable. China experiences about 500 protests every day, yet its protests tend to be small and largely peaceful, whereas Syria’s far fewer “protests” can involve heavy artillery. “We are weighting by the amount of coverage, so if the more peaceful protests get less coverage on the Web, the numbers will be lower,” a Recorded Future designer responded when I asked about this.

The chart, then, measures online coverage and discussion as much as the protests themselves, which in some ways is just as interesting. Much has been made of the role of social media in facilitating protest movements in the Middle East and China, but it could also be amplifying their impact.

Recorded Futures found the highest intensity of protest discussion in these countries.

The graph at right, also from Recorded Futures data, shows the countries with the highest protest coverage “intensity.” It’s hard to imagine that Iran really has more protests than does Bahrain -- the former has cracked down, while the latter remains embroiled in daily mass demonstrations from the majority Shiites -- but Iran is both more closely watched by outsiders and, owing to a population that is many times larger than Bahrain’s, has a larger online community.

However you slice the data, though, it seems clear that the intensity of protest coverage and discussion, and thus presumably of the protests themselves, has risen over the past year. It’s an open question whether this is a coincidence or if the many national protest movements are linked by some common factors.

The anti-austerity protests in the U.K. or Greece, after all, would seem to have little connection to the Russian protests around Vladimir Putin’s contested reelection, or the Israeli protests for cheaper housing, or India’s anti-corruption movement. The globally worsening economy certainly seems to be a theme in many, as do pro-democracy movements, though these wouldn’t seem to explain Japan’s anti-nuclear protests or Pakistan’s anti-drone protests.

Whatever else the data tell us, Time magazine’s decision in December 2011 to label “the protester” as their person of the year, however gimmicky, seems even more prescient now than it did then.



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Max Fisher · October 15, 2012

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