On Protests, Maps, and the Limits of Quantitative Data

Erik Loomis points to this fascinating map allegedly marking “every protest on the planet since 1979.” The piece explaining the map itself, however, acknowledges the limits of taking such data too far:

The map also shows some of the limits of Big Data — and trying to reduce major global events to coded variables. Take, for example, the protests across the United States in late 2011: Some are Occupy protests, others are Tea Party protests, but the difference in the political identity of those demonstrations isn’t reflected in the map. There are some strange things that happen when the data are mapped, as well. A cursory glance at the map would suggest that Kansas is the most restive state in the union, but really the frequent protests popping up somewhere near Wichita are every media mention of a protest in the United States that doesn’t specify a city (the same goes for that flickering dot north of Mongolia in Middle-of-Nowhere, Russia).

Another issue is that the results are only as good as the data. While the scale of GDELT’s database is impressive, it’s influenced by its source: international news reporting. Kalev Leetaru, the Yahoo! fellow at Georgetown University working on the GDELT project, told FP by email that the apparent uptick in protests around the world starting in the mid-1990s may be misleading. “In some other work we are doing right now, preliminary results suggest that as a percentage of all events captured in GDELT, protests have not become more common overall,” he explained. “So, the majority of that increase in protest events over time stems from the increase in available digital media,” especially news.

However, there seem to be some other very real issues, perhaps most notably in exactly what constitutes a “protest.” In looking at this map, one might think that South America has historically been remarkably “inactive,” especially through much of the 1980s and 1990s. Certainly, the presence of repressive dictatorships in Chile (until 1990) or Argentina (until 1983) helps explain some of this “inactivity.” However, no state is so strong as to completely quell or silence protest; notably, in the case of Argentina, the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo gathered regularly to protest the disappearance of their children as early as 1977, and with increasing frequency (and increasing participation from other sectors of Argentine society) throughout the early-1980s. Yet the map seems to ignore all of these protests, with just the occasional “blip” in Argentina in the 1980s; thus, while the map marks an occasional protest in Argentina, it appears to disregard and exclude the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo regularly. This cannot be attributed just to press silence – international news sources were increasingly covering the Madres as the dictatorship wound down. It is not clear what a “protest” is in the map-data, but apparently, the Madres de la Plaza and their supporters are not included.

Nor are they alone. Brazil is inexplicably “invisible” both in 1984 and in 1991-1992, yet these two moments marked two of the most massive and profound series of protests and rallies in Brazilian history. In 1984, as the Brazilian dictatorship was winding down, millions of people throughout Brazil took to the streets in the Diretas Já movement, demanding direct elections and protesting the regime’s exit through the indirect selection of a president. Ultimately, the movement culminated in over one million people gathering in São Paulo alone. Yet on the map, there is not a single “blip” in Brazil in all of 1984, in spite of the numbers of rallies and protests. It is possible that the Diretas Já movement was excluded, given that it was as much in favor of legislation that would create direct elections (a bill that Congress ultimately rejected); such exclusion seems a bit silly, given that those who rallied in favor of the bill were from opposition parties and organizations that opposed the dictatorship, but perhaps the definitions of “protest” used excluded Diretas Já.

That does note explain the absence of regular and significant “blips” in Brazil in 1991-1992, however. In those two years, the issue of rampant corruption in President Fernando Collor’s administration (ironically, the first directly-elected president after the military dictatorship of 1964-1985) led to growing outrage in Brazil. Led by university students who painted their faces (thus leading to their being labeled the Caras Pintadas, or “Painted Faces”), Brazilians took to the streets, demanding Collor’s impeachment and frequently protesting in front of Congress in Brasília, as well as in major urban centers throughout the country. These were unquestionably protests by any definition, and they were not small-scale; as the depth and sheer scale of corruption in the Collor administration became increasingly apparent, tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of people were in the streets, demanding Collor’s removal. He ultimately resigned in 1992, due in no small part to the visible moments of anger and public protest against his administration. Yet on the map, Brazil is completely inactive, lacking even one single “blip” to mark any of these protest in this period. And it’s not like press censorship or a lack of awareness can explain away this gap – this was the top story in Brazilian media for months, and international media outlets also likewise paid it significant attention, especially as the protests continued and Collor’s corruption was further revealed. There is simply no explanation as to why the map completely fails to register these protests other than the fact that, in spite of its claims otherwise, it does not cover “every protest on the planet since 1979.” And if the gaps are that obvious in Argentina and Brazil, what other parts of Latin America, or of the world, are completely and erroneously neglected in the data-gathering that led to the map in the first place?

To be clear, this is not to toss out the map altogether – it does indeed provide a fascinating glimpse into mobilization on a global scale. But the absence of any marker of protests in Latin America at times where protests were common and massive indicates that the map has some very real limits as well, not only in terms of quantitative limits, but in the very qualitative nature of what constitutes a “protest” and why some groups that were clearly leading large protest movements are not included in the data.


About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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