The Post-2011 Arab World: Change is the Name of the game

By James M. Dorsey

Common wisdom has it that ultimately failed or troubled popular revolts in 2011 in the Middle East and North Africa have sparked bloody civil wars and violent extremism, and given autocracy a new lease on life.

Indeed, there is no denying that a brutal civil war in Syria has killed hundreds of thousands and dislocated millions. Iraq, like Syria, is seeking to defeat the Islamic State (IS), the most vicious jihadist movement in recent history. Sectarianism and religious supremacism is ripping apart the fabric of societies in the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond.

Yet, the legacy of the 2011 revolts is not simply massive violence, brutal jihadism, and choking repression. In fact, the revolts kicked off an era of change, one that is ugly, destabilizing, violent and unpredictable, and that may not lead any time soon to more liberal, let alone democratic rule. Continue reading

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Predicting Protest Policing (Research)

I was recently asked by a journalist in North Dakota to comment upon the ongoing protests at Standing Rock, and to predict how it all would end. Like a good social scientist, I hedged a lot, but like a naive one, I obliged his request. Perhaps luckily for me, my words were never printed. Two days after our interview, the Army Corps of Engineers declared that the Energy Transfer Partners Corporation would not be granted an easement, the news editor demanded a different version of the story, and my predictions (right or wrong, I may never tell!) remain in a newsman’s notebook.

But I have been turning over the journalist’s question wondering how soon will come the day when we can predict within a narrow credibility interval, the actions of police or protesters engaged in some contentious struggle.

The capacity to predict, of course, is the sine qua non of mature, policy-applicable scientific theory. But I don’t think many of us would say that we are quite there yet. We have many excellent small-N studies cataloguing mechanisms of contentious politics and repertoires of protest policing (too many to cite in a blogpost). And we have large-N studies giving us some understanding of general patterns or trends in protest activity distributed across various political regimes. But we haven’t brought granular, nuanced, rich, big, and comparable data to questions asking who does what to whom, when, and under what (often dynamic) circumstances. I predict that will change very soon.

The Dynamics of Collective Action (DCA) database represents the closest we have lately come to big, rich, comparable data on protest and the policing thereof. Analyzing 22 variables describing over 24,000 events spanning three decades in New York state, the DCA database has launched a number of articles and careers. By comparing across so many (stand-alone) events motivated by different claims and using a range of tactics, authors have advanced our knowledge of how protests unfold differently against different targets and how movements’ activities depend on their contextualization in SMO fields, markets, and broader national policy processes. (For a listing of all publications based upon the DCA database, click here.)

A few articles using DCA data have also attempted to explain police behavior during who have collected and reported findings from DCA explain, the dataset is somewhat limited in its utility for understanding protest policing. DCA only collects very impressionistic data about police activity: whether police were present or not and whether they engaged in violence or arrest. Thus Soule and Davenport (2009) counsel future researchers to “move away from [police] presence/absence formulations of repression and toward more theoretically and methodologically sensitive conceptualizations of police action.”

The authors suggest, too, that to better understand protest policing behavior – well enough, perhaps, to make public predictions about what police will do during some ongoing movement – we will also need to build models of protest policing that take into account police (and protester) activities at events occurring throughout a protest ‘campaign.’ DCA, however, provides no accounting of campaigns (defined as a series of thematically and operationally linked protest events), instead conceptualizing each event in its dataset as a one-off.

Finally, Soule and Davenport (2009) counsel researchers to “examine the effects of various exogenous factors, such as the overall structure of political opportunities on police use of force and/or violence and arrests.” Here, again, the DCA comes up short even as it provides arguably the best quantitative data available on protest and its policing.

There are a number of reasons, though, to predict a brighter future for protest policing studies. First, the small-N studies of protest policing – while they are fundamentally incapable of marshaling enough data for comparative analyses – have been discovering, elucidating, and confirming the importance of a number of “control performances” (my riff off of Tilly’s contentious performances) in the protest policing repertoire. We have a better idea than ever about what we should be looking for as we take the advice to move beyond “police absence/presence formulations” of protest policing. Second, since the DCA was compiled, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (of the Department of Justice) has released powerful survey results describing the capacities and cultures of police departments across the United States. These data, especially when combined with data on US city political opportunities (housed in census databases and on city government websites describing upcoming elections, government types, and the political bent of their populations) will allow us to understand the “various exogenous factors” affecting protest policing.

Third, the Occupy movement provides us with excellent comparative campaign data. Nearly 200 US cities and towns had an Occupy campaign. Moreover, each of these campaigns was motivated by similar claims, drew on a similar protest performance repertoire, and occurred at the same time. The comparative leverage afforded by such data could hardly be better if social movements scholars had planned and organized the Occupy movement for their own selfish research purposes! Fourth, and finally, our capacity to extract nuanced data about events from news reports – a necessary and painstaking aspect of almost all quantitative protest event analysis research – is improving rapidly. With citizen science (crowdsourcing) approaches, the clever use of natural language processing algorithms, and hybrids between the two, we will soon find that we can parse thousands of news accounts by hundreds of variables of interest. And instead of requiring a decade of effort, a data-gathering and processing project comparable in size/scope to DCA might only take a year or two.

Improved by these four factors, next generation social movements databases will support complex analyses explaining how interactions between police and protesters at multiple levels – within and across events – not only result from political opportunities and police capacities and culture, but also feed back into later interactions. We know, based on our qualitative experience, that an on-the-ground clash fueled by adrenaline can shift the mood and outcome of an entire protest event, an entire campaign, and even (sometimes) the course of history. And we know that police strategies, often based on contextual political opportunities, can increase or decrease the likelihood of on-the-ground clashes and other behaviors. Soon, finally, we will be able to house fine-grained data on all these behaviors and factors in a single place, linking all these levels of analysis through dynamic probabilistic models allowing us to measure the flow of causality through such complex systems.

With such complete, well-operationalized data, we will be able to identify sequences of interaction leading to violent escalations, negotiations, and other outcomes, and the contextual factors influencing them. And then, I predict, we will be able to respond confidently and competently when reporters call asking us to divine what will happen next.

 

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“ ‘Walk Together Children!’ The Charismatic Leadership and Race-Conscious Politics of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.”

This month, we’ve celebrated the birth and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who has become the face of African American civil rights in the United States and human rights worldwide. While there is much of King’s legacy that remains under appreciated, particularly his post-1963 “I Have a Dream” speech critiques of capitalism and worker’s rights protests, there is also room to explore the influence of lesser-known Civil Rights advocates and activists. Continue reading

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Citizens and the Crisis: a documentary

Last month I attended the closing conference of the LIVEWHAT project. LIVEWHAT stands for “Living With Hard Times”. It is an EU-funded research project coordinated by Prof. Marco Giugni that investigates  citizens’ responses to the economic crisis in nine European countries.

Besides its fascinating topic and research questions (read more about the project here), what intrigued me most was the fact that shooting a documentary film was part of the project. During the closing conference,  “Citizens and the Crisis” premiered. Its three parts-of about 15 minutes each- can be viewed here; part 1 is featured below. Continue reading

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Mobilization in the Trump Era

Over the course of this last year, I worked on a paper titled “Elites, Policy and Social Movements” now published in Research in Political Sociology. In short, the paper is about how challengers, over the long run, develop ties to political elites and political entrepreneurs and how the networks they create shape policy change. Like some of my other work, I focus on the insider-outsider relationship among actors working on similar social change projects.

I started writing this paper during the heated Democratic primaries when Hillary Clinton was fighting to secure her place with Democratic voters and seeking to appeal to Bernie Sanders supporters. A particular exchange between Clinton and a BlackLivesMatter activist left a lasting impression. Continue reading

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Informing Activists: How can I protect myself legally when I am active online?

Derek Bambauer

How can I protect myself legally when I am active online?

Professor Bambauer mentions several resources that you can use to protect yourself online. We have compiled links to these sources below.

The EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation)’s Surveillance Self-Defense offers overviews, tutorials, and briefings for how to keep your identity and your information safe online.

Fire (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education)

The Tor software protects you by bouncing your communications around a distributed network of relays run by volunteers all around the world: it prevents somebody watching your Internet connection from learning what sites you visit, it prevents the sites you visit from learning your physical location, and it lets you access sites which are blocked.

The Tails system is a live operating system that you can start on almost any computer from a DVD, USB stick, or SD card. It aims at preserving your privacy and anonymity, and helps you to: use the Internet anonymously and circumvent censorship; all connections to the Internet are forced to go through the Tor network; leave no trace on the computer you are using unless you ask it explicitly; use state-of-the-art cryptographic tools to encrypt your files, emails and instant messaging.

 

Further Reading

Classic:

Marx, Gary T. 1988. Undercover: police surveillance in America. Berkeley, CA: Univ of California Press,

Review:

Lyon D. 2007. Surveillance Studies: An Overview. Malden, MA: Polity

Contemporary:

Rafail, Patrick. 2014. “What Makes Protest Dangerous? Ideology, Contentious Tactics, and Covert Surveillance.” Intersectionality and Social Change. Emerald Group Publishing Limited. 235-263.

 

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Looking Back on Five Years of Mobilizing Ideas

To celebrate the five year anniversary for Mobilizing Ideas, we are inviting contributors to revisit our first topic. In 2011, we invited a number of scholars to reflect on the recently published Digitally Enabled Social Change: Activism in the Internet Age (MIT Press, 2011) by Jennifer Earl and Katrina Kimport. The dialogue considered the emergence of social media and how it might affect movements. Now, with more hindsight, we ask activists and scholars what has changed in our thinking about the ways in which movements use social media, and to what effect.

Many thanks to our fantastic group of contributors.

Jennifer Earl, University of Arizona, (essay)
Deana Rohlinger, Florida State University (essay)
Paul-Brian McInerney, University of Illinois at Chicago (essay)

Editors in Chief,
Grace Yukich, David Ortiz, Rory McVeigh, Guillermo Trejo

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