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Global Protests and the Rapid Diffusion of Ideas

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As the year draws to a close, it is worth reminiscing on the numerous national protests that have occurred in various countries around the world. Many of these protests, most notably those in Hong Kong, Iran, Iraq, and Bolivia, have gathered widespread international attention.


While each protest has its own unique reasons for occurring. That being said, it is hard to ignore that many protests share similar themes, namely a strong desire for democratic reform and to address inequality.


But why are so many similar protests occurring within such a short time period? Surely these grievances existed in the past? Mainland China, for example, was a totalitarian influence on Hong Kong long before the extradition bill which triggered the protests was proposed.


Perhaps, then, network effects are to blame for the sudden and rapid propagation of democracy and equality. Such a phenomenon may be explained through models of cascades and spreading, insofar as “Democracy” and “Equality” are to be considered products to be spread.


We may evaluate ideologies as if they were products to be adopted. If applied to the models we typically use in class, democracy would be analogous to product A while authoritarianism would be analogous to product B. Product A has a greater implicit value than product B, thus lowering the threshold required to adopt product A and increasing the propensity for product A to spread within a network.


This interpretation can be applied in multiple ways. First, it can explain how these ideas spread on a local level. Node A supports democracy and, therefore, product “Democracy” spreads to other nodes in A’s network. Second, entire countries may be considered to be nodes, such that when a country is protesting for democracy, or otherwise adopts product “democracy,” other countries within the global network of nations will become more likely to also protest for democracy. When a threshold is met, the country goes into a state of protest.


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November 2019