Saturday, 26 February 2011

Not anticipating major political unrest in Madison Or Maybe Not?

UPDATE: Since the time of writing this article we have seen a sudden surge in Tweeting coming from the protest site in Madison. This surge may indicate a process of organization taking place on the ground as the rally progresses.

We come to this conclusion despite the reports of a large demonstration forming. We are reading the reports of thousands of people coming to Madison to protest. But we simply do not see any recent rise in the use of mobile devices to send tweets from the protest. Our experience of large mostly protests in moder 21st Century cities is that they kick up a large amount of Internet buzz from the site of the demonstrations. We do not see any evidence of this buzz.

Following the buzz on Twitter at #Madison we investigate the potential extent of the protests. We have been watching Madison for some time.

We have developed a method of predicting potential political unrest or demonstrations that use twitter to self organize. When we have a location of a demonstration we will baseline it against a location. In the case of Madison Wisconsin sit in we have been tracking Madison against the slightly larger city of St Louis.

Our assumption is that any major confrontation in a place like Madison would be preceded by a prolonged burst of Twitter active, much of it send by mobile devices from people near the scene. We have used this method to anticipate an expansion of the protests in Bahrain after the crack down and to anticipate a large protests in Madison during the week.

Every major protests we have seen where people could access Twitter has seen a surge in tweeting from baselines. We are not seeing that in Madison. We even tested the tool to be sure a mistake was not made, but what is happening in Madison does not have the twitter signature of a major dynamic demonstration that is self organizing for a larger resistance.

Monitoring both Madison and St Louis this afternoon we see no sign of expanded Twitter activity coming from the Capitol area of Madison. We therefore conclude that any unrest or acceleration in the weekend demonstration is unlikely.

UPDATE: New reports have come in to report the crowd is sizable. Which makes our low level of twitter buzz all the more intriguing. There is a possibility that very bad weather kept people from pulling out their hand held devices to tweet some photos. But we have never seen an assembly of 100,000 in a modern place produce so little Twitter activity.

What we conclude is that a large demonstration is mostly a preplanned march with protesters prepared to go home. They are not organizing follow along protests. But we will continue to track, a sudden surge in tweeting could indicate a sudden increase in organizing on the ground.

Then again the motivations of those in Madison may be very different than protests in Bahrain. Bahrain protesters were trying to outfox a regime which had turned violent. Madison protesters may be just trying to make a show. But even that is a bit strange. If they wanted to show the level of their support would they not tweet even more to get the news out.

One thing we are learning about protesters is that some show up on their own, and some are brought in by one group or another. Protesters who self organize and self motivate tweet and use facebook if they have access to it, protesters who are organized by other groups generally tweets at lower levels. We may be seeing a large show of strength by major unions in Madison right now. But it is a very different kind of protest than the Pearl Square one.

UPDATE: We are actually seeing the level of tweeting coming from the ground in Madison fall as the protest extends. We are seeing only a fraction of the normal baseline for the city, and far less than in St Louis. Despite reports that a massive demonstration is taking place, we fail to see the twitter signature we see in other such demonstrations. We anticipate that there will be a few speeches made, and then everyone will go home.

Final Update: We did see a large surge in tweeting after the event in Madison. But the overall levels of tweeting, the volume on the #Madison twitter hashtag and our other measure show nothing like the level of activity during Bahrain protest. Oddly it seems American demonstrators are less engaged in Social Media than many Arabs right now.

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