Age of Mass Protest
March 4, 2020
Bob Schieffer: I'm Bob Schieffer.
Andrew Schwartz: And I'm Andrew Schwartz of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. And this is The Truth of the Matter.
Bob Schieffer: This is the podcast where we break down the policy issues of the day. Since the politicians are having their say, we will excuse them with respect and bring in the experts, many of them from the CSIS, people who have been working these issues for years.
Andrew Schwartz: No spin, no bombast, no finger pointing, just informed discussion.
Andrew Schwartz: In today's episode of The Truth of the Matter, I'm flying solo, as Bob Schieffer is out of town. To get to the truth of the matter about The Age of Mass Protests, we're talking today with CSIS's Samuel Brannen.
Andrew Schwartz: Sam, you did a big report. It's called The Age of Mass Protests, Understanding an Escalating Global Trend. What made you do the report, and why is it relevant to policy discussions today?
Sam Brannen: Thanks Andrew. Glad to be with you. The report is actually the product of what I think hit us like a ton of bricks at the end of 2019, which was watching this rising protest movement in cities like Hong Kong, in Santiago, Chile, in Baghdad, and-
Andrew Schwartz: Pretty much all over Latin America.
Sam Brannen: All over Latin America, all over really the world.
Andrew Schwartz: Yeah.
Sam Brannen: So we looked at that and we said, "Wow, this is really something else." But what does the data actually say about this? Have we looked comprehensively at global mass protests, and is there something systematic across the planet happening here?
Sam Brannen: So, we put together a dataset that leveraged something called the Global Database of Events, Language, and Tone, which is a machine learning database that catalogs basically everything that happens in the world based on press accounts. We went back to 2009, went forward to 2019, and what we saw was that there was actually a staggering trend line that's on its way up in every region in the world where we're seeing about 11.4% increase year to year over this entire time span in regions across the world. And we're seeing some extraordinary growth. If you look at places like Sub-Saharan Africa, over this time period, you've seen growth that's about 23% annually.
Andrew Schwartz: Growth in mass protests?
Sam Brannen: Growth in mass protests. This is number of protests, number of protestors who are in the street.
Andrew Schwartz: So on average across the world, year to year, 2009 to 2019, across all regions of the world, mass protests increased annually by an average, you found, of 11.5%?
Sam Brannen: Yup, that's right.
Andrew Schwartz: And why is that significant?
Sam Brannen: It's significant because it shows that the trend line has been growing year to year. So this is a phenomena that, when you check in on it, you're seeing more protests in countries around the world. And we've actually never seen this before in recorded history. So if you go back to sort of the big protest movements of the 1960s, 1980s, 1990s, which really turned governments upside down around the world, those were relatively small and localized compared to what we're seeing in countries now. And we're seeing regimes change, we're seeing politics become more brittle in countries, and we're seeing the ease with which citizens can just go out and express their views at a level we've never seen before.
Andrew Schwartz: So is this a good thing? Is this an expression of democracy? Is this an expression of the will of the people? Or is this really a reflection that people around the world are increasingly restless and unhappy? Or is it all?
Sam Brannen: I think it's yes and yes. And what we're seeing that's really interesting of course, is that in a number of countries, this is leading to repressive crackdowns by governments. I think if you see the violence that happened in Hong Kong, if you see what's happened in Iraq, there is a resistance to political protest in a number of countries. And in fact, countries like Russia and China and Iran are not only cracking down in their own countries, but they're beginning to export policing tactics, surveillance technologies, advising governments, online disinformation campaigns aimed at controlling protests outside of their own borders.
Andrew Schwartz: What's their interest in doing that?
Sam Brannen: They're doing two things. The first is internally, they're shoring up their regimes. They're keeping people in power in power. Externally, they're using it as a way to gain influence in capitols. They're gaining influence over regimes that they want to back. They become in debt to them. I mean the extreme case example of this is the way that Russia has played in the Syrian civil war. You back a regime and you sort of own them.
Andrew Schwartz: So Sam, you took a data-driven approach to this. This is a data-driven society. And ten years ago you might not have taken a data-driven approach to look at this issue, but you did. Beyond the 11.5%, what did the data really tell you about these mass protests all over the world? And what did you find?
Sam Brannen: So really they pointed us to factors that don't lend themselves to data. So understanding the growing numbers. Then we sort of looked at what were the factors that are different now than they were ten years ago? And the number one factor that comes to the fore is the number of people online in the world. So about 4 billion people today of a population of close to 8 billion are online. So half the world is online. The ease with which we can communicate through social media platforms, the ability to communicate with one another through encrypted, relatively safe methods has changed the game in terms of organizing protests.
Sam Brannen: It used to be that you had to have leaders, you had to have organization, you had to print out pamphlets. The way that the civil rights movement was organized or Vietnam protests, it's night and day in terms of the simplicity of just posting something online on a message board, or a trusted channel through an app like Telegram, and what it was before. So the ease with which people and the relative safety and anonymity with which people can organize protests is the number one factor of change.
Sam Brannen: But I think related to that is what people know and what they are upset about . So this goes back to our late colleague, Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote in 2008, ahead of the Arab Spring, of what he identified as a global political awakening. And he said that more people were more politically engaged and active than ever before in history, and he essentially predicted what we're seeing through today. Which is not only Arab Spring, but if you really look at the numbers, the Arab Spring never ended in the Middle East, in North Africa, in terms of the number of people who are protesting.
Andrew Schwartz: It's more like the Arab Decade.
Sam Brannen: It is. And it's the global decade in a lot of ways. It's well outside of that region. I think when we looked at the end of last year, there were something like 39 countries in which protests have taken place. Already this year, despite coronavirus, which is a bit of an inhibitor to people gathering publicly, we have 17 countries that have had major protests. When you look at political events, what happened in India last week with massive sectarian cell protests, it became violent. In Canada, major economic issues arising from blocking an oil pipeline, railroad stoppages. Dominican Republic just today and yesterday over municipal elections. This is a trendline that's really everywhere at once.
Andrew Schwartz: What are some of the outcomes that you found from these protests?
Sam Brannen: So, varied. And really, it's case by case. They range from regime change, from political change, to extremely violent crackdowns. And it just depends on the country, and to some degree it depends on the number of protesters. And in lots of cases it's stalemates. And I would describe, particularly the Hong Kong protests are the most important global protests of last year. And why do I say that? I say that because the protestors there were able to command media coverage. They were able to get, at some points, almost 20% of the population of the entire city out on the streets. And protesters around the world are copying what they're doing there. But even as effective as they've been, they still haven't really achieved their political objective. So it's still a gamble when you protest.
Sam Brannen: On the other hand, I would point to some recent decisions taken related to climate change by BP, by major banks in terms of divestment from hydrocarbon funds, from carbon-emitting funds –that is in no small result. The global climate movement, which has turned out, for instance, last year in September over the course of seven days, between six and eight million people in 150 countries. So there is a theory of change at work here, but it plays out unevenly. And I would say in some ways, also Chile is a good example, where we had big wide-scale protests that actually have led to some significant conversations between protesters and the government, some real changes in civil compact, attempts to address underlying grievances. So broad range of outcomes possible.
Andrew Schwartz: You mentioned coronavirus, which is on the tip of all of our tongues, and that some of the protests have slowed down because of coronavirus. Particularly I think you were thinking of Hong Kong, where the protest movement seems to have slowed down a little bit because of coronavirus. Do you think that issues like coronavirus are going to slow or impede these protest movements, or do you see them continuing to increase the rate of protests as the trend lines you've seen predict?
Sam Brannen: So I think it's going to be a little bit of both. We've actually seen in Hong Kong, one protest over the government handling of coronavirus already. Iran was of course another hotspot even early this year. Soleimani attack and then the shootdown of civilian airliner, Iranians in the street on both issues, Iran in the midst of a real coronavirus crisis right now. So I think we will see people out in the streets over government handling of coronavirus as they have been over a range of other issues. But certainly in Hong Kong I think for the moment it's put a bit of a brake on that movement.
Andrew Schwartz: Russia and China and Iran, you mentioned in your report, are particularly very good at suppressing protest movements. Tell us about that a little bit.
Sam Brannen: Yeah, and it's really a bit of an offense-defense arms race between protesters and governments. And of course what Russia, Iran, and China do foremost is that they're very active in the online space. So they try to take away the online organizing ability of individuals. They secondarily of course are willing to use extreme policing tactics in the streets. Brutality, arresting opposition leaders. That in some cases has actually fed the protesters, especially when they're leaderless. So the ability for these self-organizing protests to move forward, and to use these more broadly available encrypted apps and so forth that those governments try to ban, they try to get more access to, and protesters try to innovate. They try to leapfrog digitally. And there are some real implications for issues that are hot-button in the United States, in Europe, and elsewhere about encrypted communications.
Sam Brannen: So we worry about it in the United States from sort of a terrorist perspective. Could people who want to do bad things or criminal perspective, use these encrypted apps to go around law enforcement? On the other hand, when it's in the hands of protesters in those countries, it's a vital tool for them to be able to organize against authoritarian regimes. They spread a lot of disinformation about these groups, misinformation. When Russia pulled together their big Africa summit last year, they more or less advertised their willingness to back regimes who are experiencing protests in their own country and sort of send their digital experts, and even send their mercenaries, the Wagner Group and others, if need be. I mean the role that Russia has played, and particularly in Venezuela, in Libya, and in Syria shows that they are very serious about sort of putting down political opposition movements that take to the streets.
Andrew Schwartz: So Sam, what does all this mean for the United States? The United States has watched all these protest movements very closely. Some are our immediate Southern border, some are far away, but we clearly need to pay attention to all of them. And why are these protests a policy issue for us, and what should we be paying attention to?
Sam Brannen: I'll start with the international and then I'll go to the domestic. So internationally, I think this is a mass trend that we've all kind of missed. Up until 2019 when it became all too obvious that protests were something that was happening globally, we haven't had sort of a theory of the case. So we haven't put together a toolkit that would help those protesters who have legitimate grievances, and would help governments address those legitimate grievances. We have a number of foreign policy, foreign aid tools out there that we could put to work, but we haven't really thought about how we could apply them to these situations.
Sam Brannen: And I've had a number of conversations with our CSIS colleagues about this. There are a number of people working on this issue from one dimension or another across the center. So the first thing is thinking comprehensively about what we can do with our existing investments and capabilities. And the second thing is, there is this backsliding trend of democracy that's all too obvious, where every year when Freedom House puts out its Freedom in the World publication, we see that there's been, over the past 12 years, a backsliding in how many countries are now democratic and free and how many are somewhere in between and how many are authoritarian. And so could this play into sort of resetting a global democracy agenda?
Sam Brannen: And then that goes really to the domestic piece of this, which is that we are in such a hyper-polarized environment in the United States that it might not surprise you to learn that since the election of President Trump, we have seen the largest scale protests in U.S. history. So larger than Vietnam, larger than civil rights, larger than Iraq War.
Andrew Schwartz: That is surprising.
Sam Brannen: And I think it's because in some ways people are expressing their political preferences. These are by and large very violence-free protests. We see some things happening at the fringes. We've seen Charlottesville, some extremists who have had their own protests and have come together and seek conflict, but for the most time this is peaceful. And so the question is, can political parties meaningfully tap into that energy in a constructive way? Can we have a constructive dialogue rather than a partisan dialogue? There's a lot of political energy out there. There are a lot of expectations. And that's the global piece of this that's difficult too, is that when we looked at the commonality across these protests, what's getting people into the street? The number one issue is economic inequality or perceived inequality. You might think it's politics, et cetera. And in this country, it often is. But around the world it's this issue of inequality and corruption. So the idea that people are not getting their fair share, that elites and politicians and institutions aren't serving their interests.
Andrew Schwartz: So, we're now in an America first environment. What are you urging our policymakers to do with regard to these protests?
Sam Brannen: Well, I think internationally there's clearly something going on. There's the classic Buffalo Springfield song from the late 1960s, the protest anthem. There's something happening here. What it is-
Andrew Schwartz: For What It's Worth, sure.
Sam Brannen: Ain't exactly clear.
Andrew Schwartz: Yeah.
Sam Brannen: So there's something in the air here. And the question is, does it just add to the sort of global disorder that's going on, or can it be used constructively? Can it be used to create new government responsiveness? And I think there are countries around the world that are looking at this and are changing the way they communicate with their citizens as a result of it. They're realizing we're in a different information environment. Expectations are different. We see it coming out in political discourse, sometimes usefully, sometimes not so usefully.
Sam Brannen: But I think the question is, is this a force for greater civil cohesion at a time when we need it for solutions to the kind of challenges that we're facing now internationally and domestically? Or is it just going to be one more force that sort of pulls us apart? And when you look at the history of ancient Rome, for instance, which is instructive in many ways, there were periods in Roman history where there was so called ochlocracy, which was the rule of the mob. It wasn't clear who was in charge, people were just on the streets. And in some cases, in France for instance with the yellow vest movement, that's sort of been where things have trended. Politicians and institutions have not adapted, and people are just out in the streets. They're angry, they're not backing any particular political party. I think Hong Kong falls into this at some point. So there is a relationship between citizens and their government that is being renegotiated right now.
Andrew Schwartz: And it's in our interest to understand all these?
Sam Brannen: It is. It is. And I should say, this study is maybe the first of its kind in pulling this data together in this way, but certainly not at looking at protest movements. There are a number of prominent academics across a variety of disciplines who really understand what's driving protests, what are the outcomes of past protests, what are constructive ways to engage with them? And so I would say, as a first step, this is a great issue for a congressional hearing on. To sort of begin to build knowledge around what's going on, what can we constructively do? And also innovation. We need to think differently about our government right now. And we need to think differently about the challenges that countries are facing. And in some cases, we need to think really horizontally and internationally about those challenges. Democracies need to work together just as authoritarian states are working together to try to seek their own political system advantage.
Andrew Schwartz: Sam Brannen, thank you very much for being here. It's not every day that you get to talk in the same podcast about Dr. Brzezinski and Buffalo Springfield.
Sam Brannen: Thanks Andrew. Only with you.
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