Since Donald Trump’s election to the presidency, protests have been sweeping the United States. On the day after his inauguration, between 3.3 million and 5.2 million people took to the streets in women’s marches in 654 cities and towns, making it the largest one-day demonstration in American history. In the weeks that followed, people flocked to the nation’s airports to protest Trump’s immigration ban, scientists left their labs to march for science, concerned citizens assembled to call for action against climate change, taxpayers mobilized on tax day to demand Trump’s tax returns, and others rallied to defend the new president’s policies.
In all, between 709,000 and 1,080,000 Americans took part in a protest from February through April of this year, according to a conservative estimate by the Crowd Counting Consortium. On Wednesday, hundreds more took part in an impromptu demonstration outside of the White House following Trump's sudden firing of FBI Director James Comey.
The extent of these demonstrations is notable, but Trump and congressional Republicans have often dismissed protesters against his administration as professional agitators or the stooges of elites, suggesting that outside organizers who don’t speak for average Americans are to blame.
“The so-called angry crowds in home districts of some Republicans,” the president tweeted earlier this year, “are actually, in numerous cases, planned out by liberal activists.” In another tweet, he attributed demonstrations to “professional anarchists, thugs and paid protesters.” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has also called protests against the administration “manufactured” and “not these organic uprisings that we’ve seen through the last several decades.”
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Do mass protests result from elite conspiracies, as governments in countries such as Russia, Iran, and Egypt have often claimed, or from the action of ordinary citizens?
New research on the wave of uprisings during the Arab Spring suggests it’s the latter: Widespread protest springs from coordination among average people. The study, published in the American Political Science Review and conducted by Zachary Steinert-Threlkeld, an assistant professor of public policy at UCLA, concludes that citizens organize in a decentralized manner, looking to each other — not centralized leadership — when deciding what to do. Steinert-Threlkeld calls this “spontaneous collective action.”
To reach this conclusion, Steinert-Threlkeld analyzed nearly 14 million tweets from Arab countries from 2010 and 2011. He then collected information on each Twitter user in the dataset, including how many followers they had, which showed him who was central to the digital social networks in each country. This allowed him to compare the influence of people at the core of the network to those on its periphery who had fewer social connections. In practice, this meant analyzing whether protests, such as the ones that broke out in Egypt’s Tahrir Square in 2011 against then-President Hosni Mubarak, were more correlated to the timing of tweets from the social network’s professional activists and thought leaders or the timing of tweets from everyday citizens.