Future Protest Made Risky: Examining Social Media Based Civil Unrest Prediction Research and Products
Social media has both been hailed for enabling social movements and critiqued for its affordances as a surveillance infrastructure. In this work, I focus on the latter by analyzing research, products, and discourses around the recent history of civil unrest prediction based on social media data and other public data sources, thereby giving insights into current and often opaque protest surveillance and forecasting practices. Technologies to monitor individuals and groups online have been developed for instance to predict US protests following the election of President Trump in 2016 and labor strikes across global supply chains. These works are part of an emerging computer science research field focused on “civil unrest prediction” dedicated to forecasting protests across the globe (e.g., Indonesia, Brazil, and Australia). Foremost I focus on scholarly literature as my unit of analysis, but also other artifacts discussing or detailing applications for companies, organizations or governments are examined. I provide a conceptualization of civil unrest prediction technology by illustrating data sources, features and methods used, and how prediction and detection are necessarily entangled. Then I show how various kinds of unrest activity are framed as risks to be fixed or averted for various actors with differing interests such as the military, law enforcement, and various industries. Finally, I critically unpack justifications and ascribed benefits of the technology and point to how the perspectives of protestors are almost completely absent. My analysis shows a critical need for regulation centering activists and workers, and reflection within academia, particularly in the fields of computer and data science, on the ethics and politics of protest research and ensuing technological applications.