Predicting the Behavior of Civil Unrest: Social Instability Meets Science

(Image courtesy of Raymond Verdaguer)

Civil unrest and social instability have led to major transitions of societies in modern history. Like virus infection within large urban communities, social instability has spread rapidly over the past several years --from nonviolent protest movements in Tunisia and Egypt that toppled long-established authoritarian regimes, to a protest movement that evolved to a full-blown civil war in Libya. Other civil uprisings, demonstrations, and protests have since erupted across the Arab World, most notably in Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen. Inspired partially by the Arab Spring movement, the recent ongoing "Occupy Wall Street" series of demonstrations in New York City has led to a wave of protests that swept to many cities and communities across the United States, Asia, the Americas and Europe. This recent wave of events is a continuation of a long history of civil unrest activity. Examples include the spread of discontent in France in 1848 that spread to most of Europe and parts of Latin America; the wave of urban racial riots that characterized the United States in the 1960s; and the 1989 wave of uprisings against communism in Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania, symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall.

A pertinent question that is of great interest to scientists, policymakers, governments, and ordinary people is what causes the national and international spread of civil unrest?  In a recent research article in PLOS ONEDr. Dan Braha reported evidence suggesting that exogenous social and economic conditions are not sufficient to explain the intensity of social instability, and that contagion effects and endogenous processes of positive feedback might offer the clue to solving the puzzle. In the first attempt to address the question on a global scale, Dr. Braha has analyzed records of civil unrest — including anti-government demonstrations, riots, and general strikes — of all countries listed by the United Nations that goes back almost 100 years. He then developed a spatially extended interacting model, which is based on a spatial epidemic spreading dynamics. Indeed, the inherently spatial dynamics of civil unrest events (extended by small-world like long-range social/news links) suggests the similarity between social instability and natural hazards such as earthquakes, landslides, epidemics, and forest fires. The model places society on a 2-dimensional map (modeling the division of countries into counties, provinces, cities, etc.), extended by long-range connections to reflect the social and media networks that exist in real communities. Social and political stress accumulates slowly on the grid, and is released spontaneously in the form of social unrest on short time scales to nearest and long-range neighboring regions that are susceptible to social and political stress. This social unrest activity can lead to further instabilities and avalanches of unrest events throughout the lattice. The model was extensively simulated and statistics were collected. Remarkably, the statistics related to the size of unrest activity at the level of countries, world geographical (continental) regions, and geographical subregions are well described by the spatially extended epidemic spreading dynamics. The unrest contagion patterns of each region are uniquely characterized by the parameters of the model, including the unrest "infection" rate, the structure of the social communication network, and the structure of mass media distribution networks. Interestingly, however, the research suggests that the process of unrest contagion is universal despite the differences in model parameters. The theory is supported by further analyzing the effect of mass media distribution networks on the patterns of unrest activity. Along with printed newspapers, the invention of the telegraph has immediately become a vital tool for the transmission of news around the world circa 1848. Similarly, the use of radio and television receivers has made the unrest influence among cities not only by the geographic location of cities, but also by proximity within the mass media distribution networks. Today, the use of social networking websites such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter spreads civil unrest news events quickly around the globe. The data on global civil unrest supports this view. Dr. Braha has analyzed the global civil unrest data before and after the widespread use of radio and television receivers. Surprisingly, the analysis shows the robustness of the unrest contagion mechanisms, despite the rapid increase of telecommunication technologies over time.

In sum, the results demonstrate, for the first time, the existence of universal patterns of collective unrest across countries and regions. While the parsimonious social unrest contagion model does not prove that exogenous causes play no role in determining the intensity of civil unrest, it does say that exogenous causes are not necessary to explain the observed data, and that the pursuit of independent variables that predict the occurrence of civil unrest events in space and time may be illusory.The simple spatially extended dynamical model can be used to quantify the risk of large unrest activity as well as the deployment of policies whose goal is to temper the likelihood of unrest contagion.


Dan Braha (2012) Global Civil Unrest: Contagion, Self-Organization, and Prediction. PLoS ONE 7(10): e48596. doi:10.1371/journal.pone .0048596


Observed Distributions of Civil Unrest: 1919 to 2008 and Model Predictions (solid lines)

(cumulative distributions versus total number of civil unrest events per