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How to Anticipate Mass Protest and Disruption

Michael Center and Dieter Arendt

“We are living in an age of mass protest,” the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) said in a March report looking back at 2019.

With at least 37 countries experiencing mass protests, these movements globally surged in 25 percent of countries during 2019, intensifying toward the year’s end in Hong Kong, Chile, Nigeria, Sudan, Haiti, and Lebanon. Virtual uprisings joined physical unrest, and Internet shutdowns were increasingly common, with India, Pakistan, Syria, and Turkey leading the world in this regard.

Prior to the lockdowns initiated in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, historically unprecedented levels of unrest continued increasing in early 2020 and simmered during the lockdowns. Mass protests in the United States surged by 186 percent from April to May, largely catalyzed by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. By June, the country fell into the high-risk category of Verisk Maplecroft’s Civil Unrest Index, an assessment of the risk of disruption to businesses due to mobilized

The world is entering a decade of rage, unrest, and shifting geopolitical sands. Security leaders need to understand the factors behind mass protests to accurately predict them and mitigate their effects.

“We are living in an age of mass protest,” the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) said in a March report looking back at 2019.

With at least 37 countries experiencing mass protests, these movements globally surged in 25 percent of countries throughout 2019, intensifying toward the year’s end in Hong Kong, Chile, Nigeria, Sudan, Haiti, and Lebanon. Virtual uprisings joined physical unrest, and Internet shutdowns were increasingly common, with India, Pakistan, Syria, and Turkey leading the world in this regard.


Historically unprecedented levels of unrest continued to increase in early 2020, then simmered in the background during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic and related lockdowns. Mass protests in the United States surged by 186 percent from April to May, largely catalyzed by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. By June, the country fell into the high-risk category of Verisk Maplecroft’s Civil Unrest Index, an assessment of the risk of disruption to businesses due to mobilized social disruptions as a reaction to economic, social, or political issues. Similar spikes occurred in the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, Sweden, and France, while mass protests continued in Hong Kong and Lebanon.

The economic fallout of mass protests and their potential impact on corporate operations cannot be overstated, as civil unrest triggered losses of billions of dollars for businesses, national economies, and investments worldwide. Though recent mass protests appeared to start quickly, multiple long-unaddressed issues provided protesters with a fuel reserve of frustration.

The Backdrop

“Mass protest” is a complex term, taking on different meanings depend­ing on the environment. It does not equal violent protest; however, the potential for morphing quickly into violence is real. Understanding how a mass protest may manifest in a certain environment will greatly improve resilience planning.

The media attention to mass protests around the world implies they come on suddenly, without warning. Yet, as illustrated in CSIS’s The Age of Mass Protests: Understanding an Escalating Global Trend, civil unrest and mass protests are the result of years’ worth of issues affecting large population centers in each region of the world. The 2020 surge in protests is not surprising given that, over the previous decade, anti-government protests increased by nearly one-third in 114 countries. From at least as far back as the Arab Spring, the issues that underpin many recent uprisings—including the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, anti-government movements, and economic outrage—remain unaddressed and are compounded by present frustrations, including COVID-19 conspiracy theories and anti-lockdown sentiments.

Both developing and advanced eco­nomies have had their share of reasons that stoked unrest. Civilian anti-government protests grew at a faster rate in Europe and North America than the global average. Between 20 January 2017 and 1 January 2020, nearly 11.5 million Americans participated in 16,000 protests across the country, including the five largest demonstrations in U.S. history, according to the CSIS. Thousands protested across France as part of the Yellow Vest movement. During one of France’s most important holiday periods, more than 800,000 people participated in weeks of mass demonstrations in Paris.

From 2019 to 2020, the number of countries rated as an extreme risk—making them some of the riskiest locations in the world—in the Civil Unrest Index jumped up by 66.7 percent. These latest additions include Ethiopia, India, Lebanon, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Zimbabwe. Meanwhile, Sudan has overtaken Yemen as the country with the highest risk globally.

Though mass demonstrations in 2020 were initially dampened by the COVID-19 pandemic, this is unlikely to change the overall trend. Mob violence has increased since the World Health Organization (WHO) categorized the novel coronavirus as a pandemic in March 2020, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). Approximately 1,100 protest events were recorded in about 90 countries. Bulgaria, Greece, and Germany saw protests fueled by unfounded conspiracy theories blaming various targets—including 5G networks, George Soros, and Bill Gates—for the pandemic.

Mass protests will very likely continue, if not increase, over the next few years if the root causes remain unaddressed. In fact, the CSIS predicts that the 2020s will become the “decade of rage, unrest, and shifting geopolitical sands.”

Drivers of Civil Unrest

The rage that boiled over into street protests this past year caught many governments by surprise. Authorities generally reacted to such disruptions with limited concessions and a clampdown by security forces, leaving the underlying causes unaddressed. Even if governments committed to managing the issues frustrating protesters, solutions to the complex challenges that precipitated the unrest are not quickly or easily available.

Globally, companies and investors will have to adapt to mass protests as a “new normal” for the foreseeable future, according to Political Risk Outlook 2020. Although corporations often turn to CSOs to explain mass protests—usually after the fact—security leaders can better serve their organizations by improving forecasting of a mass disruption and its impact based on its cultural context.

Thousands of demonstrators in Madrid, Spain, protested for social justice on 7 June 2020. (Photo by Roberto Arosio, Alamy Stock Photo)

There is no crystal ball foretelling when and how a mass protest may begin. Looking more broadly at geopolitical, regional, and internal issues—and the connections between them—helps build the picture over time. No single source of information will predict a mass protest. There are, however, various economic and societal indicators that can provide foresight into how the situation will likely evolve.

Economic hardship and significant fluctuations are often the most important drivers of a mass protest. Unaddressed economic stressors eventually result in hardship and discontent throughout a population.

Overall, economic stress arises from shifts in the pattern of economic behavior. Growth may continue, but a dramatic slowdown can have significant consequences, affecting social structures and political stability.

A forecast by Geopolitical Futures predicted a global economic slowdown for 2020, partly due to a cyclical downturn. Normally this would not trigger major social, political, and international crises; however, other factors will exacerbate the impact of this slowdown, generating substantially more non-economic consequences than normally anticipated.

For example, some nations did not successfully adapt to the changes necessitated by the 2008 global financial crisis, and the economic disparities experienced by citizens in those countries remain unaddressed.

International issues further stressed populations and systems, specifically food shortages aggravated by a horde of migrating locusts and the COVID-19 pandemic—the latter triggering forced and prolonged shutdowns of businesses worldwide. The shuttering of economies globally resulted in the worst economic downturn in 300 years, according to the Bank of England. George Freeman, founder of Geopolitical Futures, estimated that the unemployment rate is expected to reach 20 percent in the United States, with the greatest impacts hitting the disadvantaged.

Economic stress indicators alone will not paint a full picture, though, for those looking at how an area’s residents may behave or react in the future. Understanding a region’s culture, characteristics, and unique societal structure can help form a better gauge and a more informed response to potential mass reactions.

When looking at CSIS data analysis related to mass protests since 2009, these events have increased around the world by 15 percent. A broad view shows that events such as the Arab Spring were not isolated phenomena, but rather acute manifestations of global trends. One root cause of discontent was the rollback of civil and human rights, which began as far back as 1997, according to CSIS’s The Age of Mass Protests.

Environments with poor human rights records—such as high rates of extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests or detentions, and torture—should be monitored to determine their long-term ability to offer businesses a viable market. The research firm Verisk Maplecroft’s Security Forces and Human Rights Index rates 36 countries as extreme risk, including emerging markets where corporations or investors may be seeking to do business.

Human rights violations, including arbitrary arrests and the use of indiscriminate violence against peaceful mass protests, pose a risk to both demonstrators and any company staff in the vicinity of ongoing unrest. The use of violence eventually radicalizes protesters, provokes violent responses, and ultimately fuels further unrest, according to The Political Risk Outlook 2020.

Systemic corruption levels also contribute to expressions of societal frustrations and mass protest. Transparency International monitors corruption levels globally and advocates for change. On Transparency International’s 100-point scale, where 100 is the “cleanest,” two-thirds of countries measured fell below 50, and the average of all nations was only 43.

In its CPI 2019 Global Highlights analysis, Transparency International further argues that the influence of large money in political campaigns in developed democracies fuels the increasing division between opposition groups, often resulting in mass protests.

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Fecha de publicaciónseptiembre 01, 2020

BELT.ES no se hace responsable de las opiniones de los artículos reproducidos en nuestra Revista de Prensa, ni hace necesariamente suyas las opiniones y criterios expresados. La difusión de la información reproducida se realiza sin fines comerciales. 

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