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Spontaneous Collective Action: Peripheral Mobilization During the Arab Spring

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  19 April 2017

University of California, Los Angeles
Zachary C. Steinert-Threlkeld is Assistant Professor, Department of Public Policy, University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angles, CA 90095, (


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 article 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 in the core of a social network have no effect on levels of protest, this article 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.

Research Article
Copyright © American Political Science Association 2017 

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I would like to thank the anonymous reviewers and editorial staff who provided excellent feedback. This article has also benefitted from the generous attention and brainstorming of Lawrence Broz, James Fowler, Emilie Hafner-Burton, David Lake, and Barbara Walter. Derrick Cogburn, Jesse Driscoll, Erik Gartzke, Philip N. Howard, and Nils Weidmann provided needed encouragement along the way. Nathan Combes, Scott Guenther, Maya Oren, and Aditya Ranganath have known this article since it was just an idea, and our group sessions were integral to its success. Many thanks as well go to Jason Jones, who provided the original idea for measuring coordination. The article benefitted from active participants at many conferences over too many years, as well as the patience of the Human Nature Group and the UCSD International Relations Workshop. This article would not be possible without the assistance of Alessandro Vespignani and Delia Mocanu. All remaining errors are mine.


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