If it seems like we are living in an age of mass protests, it’s because we are. The Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) reports that the current level of global protests is “historically unprecedented in frequency, scope, and size.” Other extensive studies detail similar findings. The number of protest movements has tripled in the past 15 years, due to global unrest, political polarization, climate change, income inequality, religious and cultural divides, human rights violations, racial injustice, and many other catalysts.

Most demonstrations are peaceful, but any protest can turn violent when passions run deep. Counter-protesters, agitators, inflammatory speakers, weapons, and other triggers can quickly turn a protest into a riot. Furthermore, the presence of police sometimes escalates tensions, prompting violence instead of inhibiting it. Today’s authorities tasked with keeping the peace tread a difficult line, balancing freedom of speech with public safety.

Demonstrations are likelier to be safe and contained when officials have a strategic plan to maintain order. To accomplish this, they need deeper visibility into the event than what’s happening before their eyes. Open-source intelligence (OSINT) uncovered by security analysts and GSOC operators provides those insights. Searches by keywords, slogans, hashtags, and phrases can identify posts that reveal the identities of organizers, their mindset and agenda, logistical plans, expected attendance, directives to attendees, and other invaluable data. OSINT can also uncover various risk factors for analysts to explore, such as:

  1. Use of propaganda and disinformation to galvanize protest groups. When organizers use fake news to dehumanize their enemies, their followers are more likely to engage in hate speech and condone violent extremism. Their actions may target a group or an individual.
  2. Funding from known terrorist organizations, extremist groups, foreign governments, or suspicious dark money. Connections like these may elevate the risks present at a protest event and require the involvement of Homeland Security, FBI, and other agencies.
  3. Participation by known agitators. Professional outside agitators attend events to whip up peaceful protestors, encouraging them to engage in criminal behavior in the name of the cause.
  4. Profiles of counter-protestors. A protest group may have a history of peaceful demonstrations but may attract counter-protestors who will attend the event with violent intentions.
  5. Location tracking of protest leaders and crowds. Geospatial mapping of social media posts can help anticipate where crowds are headed or where violence may erupt. Protests that show migration toward public roadways, buildings, transit hubs, or areas that can impede public movement and safety may require immediate intervention.  

The internet has become the most powerful communication tool for protest movements to organize and galvanize support. As a result, OSINT is now the most valuable resource for analysts responsible for monitoring these groups’ activities, assessing the dangers they pose, and predicting how any demonstration will play out. 
Hypervigilance begins with help from open-source intelligence.