Spontaneous Collective Action: Peripheral Mobilization During the Arab Spring
by Zachary C. Steinert-Threlkeld, University of California, Los Angeles
Who is responsible for protest mobilization? Models of disease and information diffusion suggest that those central to a social network (the core) 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 (the periphery) can generate collective action, especially in the context of large-scale protests in authoritarian regimes. To show that those on the edge of a social network 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 on the periphery are shown to be responsible for changing levels of protest, with some evidence suggesting that the core’s mobilization efforts lead to fewer protests. These results have implications for a wide range of social choices that rely on interdependent decision-making.