Tuesday 12pm, 21 April 2015

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Using Big Data to Study Big Events: Twitter, Protests, and the Arab Spring

Zachary C Steinert-Threlkeld

PhD Student - UC San Diego


What kind of individuals organize protests? Theories of information diffusion suggest that those central to a social network should have a greater ability to mobilize others than those who are less well-connected. To the contrary, this paper argues that those not central to a network can generate collective action, especially in the context of large-scale protests in authoritarian regimes. To show that those with many social connections have no effect on levels of protest, this paper develops a dataset of daily protests across 16 countries in the Middle East and North Africa over 14 months from 2010 through 2011. It combines that dataset with geocoded, individual-level communication from the same period and measures the number of connections of each person. Those with few connections are shown to be responsible for changing levels of protest, with some evidence suggesting that the well-connecteds’ efforts lead to fewer protests. These results have implications for a wide range of social choices, from voting for a candidate to making purchasing decisions.


Zachary C. Steinert-Threlkeld is a PhD Candidate in political science at the University of California – San Diego. He studies political violence, with a particular focus on mass protest; his advisers are James Fowler and Emilie Hafner-Burton. His research takes advantage of social media data to understand individual-level behavior at a daily level, and he uses these data to understand dynamics of mobilization, elite behavior, and state repression. His dissertation focuses on the Arab Spring and Ukraine’s Euromaidan protests. In it, he develops a theory of protest tactics that explains how activists substitute between online media and offline activity; uses millions of tweets to show that protest mobilization can occur spontaneously, without organized leadership; and shows that, contrary to prevailing wisdom, social media enable state repression as much as they hinder it.