Uncovering Mechanisms of Social Movements within the Arab Spring: A Data Mining Approach

Three and a half years ago, the unforeseen outbreak of mass social movements in Middle East caught the US government and Arab regimes completely by surprise. The ensuing political contagion, known as the Arab Spring, was in many ways played out on the stage of popular social networks, such as Twitter and Facebook. This raises a critical question: can social network data be used to better understand, and even predict, outbreaks of mass protest movements?

In this collaborative project, we are using a massive database of Tweets collected from Arab Twitter users during the first six months of the Arab Spring, covering hundreds of protest events. We are employing a novel statistical computer model to examine popular grievances expressed on Twitter and their connection to later outbreaks of protest activity. Our research will explore how the Twitter network foreshadowed mass unrest and how it was used to build and sustain momentum among pro-democracy movements. The complex nature of these online networks illustrates the challenges of Big Data while promising to shed light on a subject never before studied in such detail: the anatomy of a revolution.

Congyu “Peter” Wu Research Bio

Peter Wu is a PhD student in Systems and Information Engineering and a member of the Predictive Technology Laboratory. His research interests include data mining, machine learning, natural language processing and social media analytics. He is passionate about exploring data-driven approaches and seeking data-informed answers to critical problems that have emerged in the modern world. This collaborative project gives him the chance to work with a political scientist, presenting a vital opportunity to further his research interests and to contribute to the knowledge of social sciences using his engineering expertise.

Advisor: Department of Systems and Information Engineering, PhD program, Matthew Gerber

Robert Kubinec Research Bio

Robert Kubinec is a PhD student in the Politics Department. His research interests focus on democratization in the Middle East and the interplay between governing elites and nascent social movements in the region. He also studies the formation of public opinion in Middle East, especially regarding support for democracy and regime change.  His research is enhanced by his knowledge of spoken Arabic, and his interests are both driven and focused by his previous experience as a Foreign Service Officer in the U.S. Department of State. This project will deepen his understanding of rapid protest mobilization during the Arab Spring.

Advisor: Department of Politics, PhD program, David Waldner