A Model of Protests, Revolution, and Information

Abstract

A revolt or protest succeeds only if sufficiently many people participate. We study how potential revolutionaries' ability to coordinate is affected by what they learn from those around themselves. We begin by exploring the tradeoffs from such learning: some supporters of a revolt will meet other supporters and become more convinced that there is strong support for a revolution, while others will meet partisans of the status quo and become discouraged. Even those who are more convinced may know that sufficiently many others may be discouraged, and so the revolt has no chance of success. Which effect wins is determined by the prior beliefs of the agents and the strength of the correlation of preferences across the population. We then show that homophily (situations in which people are more likely to meet others who have similar preferences) affects the possibility of a revolution, by undercutting learning and making it more asymmetric. We also use the model to study the role of protests and counter-protests before a revolution in signaling relative support, and to discuss why holding mass demonstrations before a revolt may provide better signals of people's willingness to actively participate than other less costly forms of communication (e.g., via social media).