Mass Protests Are Driven by Ordinary People Rather Than Activist Leaders

An analysis of Arab Spring uprisings suggests that citizens mobilize in a decentralized manner, looking to each other — not centralized leadership — when deciding what to do.

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.

“For large-scale collective action, leadership is less important than we thought.”

Steinert-Threlkeld found that people took to the streets when others on the periphery — that is, other people like them — were discussing the protests online, not when elites were.

“For large-scale collective action, leadership is less important than we thought,” Steinert-Threlkeld told Seeker.

It turns out that hearing from other regular citizens has a greater and wider impact. By communicating with average people, a potential protester is reassured that they won’t be the only person speaking out at the event and that they won’t be ostracized for taking an unpopular stand. It signals that there will be safety and strength in numbers.

“Protests are a complex contagion phenomenon because increasing participation makes others more likely to join,” Steinert-Threlkeld writes. “Individuals are more likely to protest as others protest, since the cost of protesting decreases as a function of group size. Individuals are especially more likely to protest when they know others who are protesting.”

Centralized leadership is still instrumental for setting the broad goals of a protest in advance and leveraging the influence of crowds for political purposes, Steinert-Threlkeld explained. But only hearing from other people like yourself “tells you… that you aren’t [going to be] the weirdo on the corner,” he said, addressing a common concern.

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These findings resonate with many previous studies on the role of social networks in political mobilization. Other researchers looking at activism on the internet have also noted the crucial importance of peripheral online participants in spreading the message of a movement. And the power of communication and coordination among ordinary people to produce protest works offline as well. In fact, it goes back way before Twitter. Steinert-Threlkeld is quick to point out that governments have been trying to control the free dissemination of information since at least the invention of the printing press, precisely because of its capacity to mobilize the masses.

“I don’t think the internet has changed this dynamic,” he said. “It might have sped it up, but it hasn’t changed the importance of interconnection and intercommunication” between average people.

Mass protests ultimately rely on social networks: It’s all about who you know. Researchers examining a wide range of social movement protests — from the Civil Rights Movement to the anti-abortion movement — have consistently found that one of the most important factors in determining whether or not a person attends a protest is if they know other protesters. When friends, family, or coworkers attend a demonstration, we are much more likely to do so as well. We’re also especially likely to participate when someone we know asks us to take part.

Political elites might try to persuade us to show up to a rally, but the appeal is much more powerful coming from a friend. As long as people can interact with each other, they will find a way to mobilize.

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