Did the Arab Spring Really Spark a Wave of Global Protests?

The world may look like it's roiling now, but the 1980s were far worse.


As the remnants of the Arab Spring’s wave of uprisings continue to wrack the Middle East, as Thailand and Venezuela convulse, and as Ukraine spirals into possible civil war, a question heard ever more frequently in the halls of Washington is whether the world is coming apart at the seams. That may well be hyperbole, but more analytical minds that I’ve spoken to recently still wonder whether the Arab Spring was the catalyst that tipped populations across the world to rise up against their governments. While political pundits and subject matter experts have responded with a myriad of thought pieces, there has been a lack of quantitative data placing the recent protests into historical context.

Turning to the Global Database of Events, Language, and Tone (GDELT Project), the timeline below is perhaps the first global chronology ever created of protests worldwide over the past 30 years, compiled from print, broadcast, and web news media from over 100 languages in nearly every country. In all, more than 2.4 million protest records from January 1979 to April 2014 are cataloged in its archive. The number of protests each month is divided by the total number of all events recorded in GDELT that month to create a “protest intensity” score that tracks just how prevalent worldwide protest activity has been month-by-month over the last quarter-century (this corrects for the exponential rise in media coverage over the last 30 years and the imperfect nature of computer processing of the news). To make it easier to spot the macro-level patterns, a black 12-month moving average trend line is drawn on top of the graph to help clarify the major temporal shifts.

Figure 1 – Intensity of protest activity worldwide 1979-April 2014 (black line is 12-month moving average)

One of the most striking features of this timeline is the sharp rise in global protest activity beginning in January 2011 as the Arab Spring washed over the Middle East, followed by a steady state of elevated protest activity over the following three years. In short, the Arab Spring indeed appears to have kicked off a 25 percent increase in protest activity around the world. This elevated level of protests appears to be stabilizing after a period of slight decrease, suggesting a future in which citizen protests play a larger role in global politics. However, it is important to put the current protests in historical context: The uprisings of recent years are still less prevalent than they were through most of the 1980s. In fact, the elevated protest activity of the last three years is only noticeable because it comes on the heels of two decades of relatively reduced protest action.

Looking at the spikes in the graph above, a number of major world events are instantly recognizable. One of the largest peaks in the trend line is the international boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games, in which more than 60 nations withdrew from the games in protest of Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan. The May 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and global anti-war movement after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003 are also both clearly visible. But the single most intense moment in global dissent over the last 30 years, as measured by GDELT, was the February 2006 Danish cartoon controversy, which triggered violent protests across the globe and left more than 250 dead, over 800 wounded, and several Western embassies damaged. While this event may not have had the long-lasting impact of other events, its global nature, with a physical footprint in so many countries, appears to have led to its heightened intensity. In third place is February 2011 — when the Arab Spring was in full swing, with protesters from Tahrir Square to Manama’s Pearl Roundabout, a period that also saw the beginning of the Libyan Civil War, the toppling of Tunisia’s tyrant, and turmoil from Algeria to Yemen. Roughly a year and a half later, we can see a spike again — denoting the reaction to the “Innocence of Muslims” video in September 2012 that fueled protests in over 60 countries. Compared against this baseline, the current outbreaks of violence in Ukraine, Thailand, and Venezuela, while captivating the American news media, are far more localized in their impact.

Turning to Ukraine as a country-level case study, there is relatively little recorded protest activity until the middle of 1989, when the fall of communism in Eastern Europe began. The next spike — a burst of anti-Ukrainian protests in Crimea in October 1995, after Kiev abolished Crimea’s constitution and dissolved its presidency — foreshadows recent events. The next spike marks the “Ukraine without Kuchma” protests of March 2001, while the uptick in September 2002 saw opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko’s “Rise Up, Ukraine!” movement take hold. The Orange Revolution in November 2004 capped off this period of elevated unrest in Ukraine, leading to a lull in widespread protests from 2007 through 2010, at which point the country began to become agitated once again, culminating in the Euromaidan protests of November 2013 to present — the biggest spike to date.

Figure 2 – Intensity of Ukraine protest activity 1979-April 2014 (black line is 12-month moving average)

Never before have we been able to answer a policy question like “did the Arab Spring catalyze a surge in protests around the world.” But by making a timeline of worldwide protests spanning 30 years, we can now see, with some perspective, the effect of the cause. Looking across the news media of every country, we can see beyond the attention biases of any one country or culture to get a far more holistic view of global protest activity. This ability to use big data to scan increasingly high-resolution records of our human society is providing the first glimpse of what the future of data-driven diplomacy may look like, moving from anecdote to actuality.

Kalev H. Leetaru is a senior fellow at the George Washington University Center for Cyber and Homeland Security and a council member of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on the Future of Government. He created the GDELT Project and focuses on big data and global society.