While the broken glass and burned wreckage is being cleared in the wake of the riots that hit Baltimore’s streets this week, researchers are already analyzing the situation to see if such events can be predicted.
The trigger of the unrest was the funeral of a 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who had died in police custody, but there are many other root causes, from income inequality to racial discrimination also at play in the incident.
For the few researchers who are studying Baltimore’s unrest, the question is not the ultimate causes of the riot but its mechanism: How do such riots self-organize and spread?
One of those researchers, Dan Braha, who is a social scientist at the New England Complex Systems Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has been collecting data from Twitter that spans the riot from buildup to aftermath. His work is part of a larger study of social media and social unrest around the world.
The protesters are mostly teens who use social media routinely. The riots that started around 3:30 pm were ignited by messages on social media urging high school students to “purge”, spread within 3 hours around the city.
The pattern of spread is much like forest fires, spreading in clusters and locally. The riots could easily spread across other cities in the United States where racial tensions are high and are close to a tipping point.
A key question for the researchers was how to tell that social media enables the spread of unrest, rather than simply serving to comment on it.
The researchers found that the rioting happens in just hours and sometimes minutes of the communications on social media, with thousands of people racing into the streets. Without social media coordinating the timing its unlikely the protests would happen.
In terms of the communications and patterns of spread, they are remarkably similar to Ferguson, London, and elsewhere. Even if the causes may be different, there seems to be a universal pattern to civil unrest which can be picked up in the data.
This means it is possible to predict social unrest but can this be a problem? After all, our right to peaceful assembly is fundamental
By tracking social media, you know exactly where and when to send the riot police. You can even inject misinformation into this system in an effort to head off riots. There is little doubt the NSA and perhaps other police forces already have this capability.
While there is a need to inhibit the damage and violence of unrest, but in a democratic society, we must ask ourselves if we want to do this. We have to find the right balance.
Protests are fundamental to our country and our democracy. To simply use technology to short circuit them could lead to dangerous unintended consequences and fundamentally undermine our system of governance.