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How to Predict Political Crisis With Your News Feed

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So instead of "predict" I should have said "anticipate." Social scientists are loathe to predict, and rightly so. Strong arguments come from good evidence and considered interpretation. Unfortunately, evidence from the future is in short supply. So at the recent International Studies Conference in San Diego, a key question emerged: If one wanted to track three trends likely to have the most impact on international relations over the next decade, what three trends could help us anticipate global political crises? At the top of my news feed are items about who is in jail and why, rigged elections, and social media.

1). Read the News About Prisons

Many countries have several policy domains that need reform -- land reform, tax reform, immigration reform -- and can all be important for improving the quality of life nationally. But the area of domestic policy that has come to have significant international repercussions involves incarceration. Examining a country's prison system can be an important way to make normative judgments about how governments -- and their political leaders -- behave. The terms of imprisonment, and conditions for the imprisoned, reveal much about how a country treats hardened criminals, cultural deviants, or political opposition. Such conditions may help Western political or business leader make a moral decision about when to do business with a government (or not). But prison systems also reveal two things about a country's global importance: prisons are the home to key nodes in global networks of criminal activity and political radicalism, and prisons provide good metrics of state capacity.

In some countries, imprisoning radical Imams gives those ideologues a captive audience of young, male social outcasts. In other countries, prisons have become a fortified home base for gang leaders, a walled fortress from which to manage extensive global networks for money laundering, drug trafficking, and arms trading. Indeed, prisons are the most important kinds of "dirty network" nodes, because prisons are where the weak ties of petty criminals become strong ties of gang affiliation. Prison gangs from Central America now regularly project power across international borders. The members of mafias from Italy to Russia may do time, but such isolation can be useful for plotting new projects with compatriots. In some countries, the government does not have the capacity to enter their own prisons, much less regulate what goes on in them. As the Economist recently reported, Honduran officials have multiple explanations for the cause of a recent jail fire that took 350 lives because rescue teams did not have the keys to break in and rescue prisoners. Another 500 prisoners escaped. Who is in prison, for what, and under what conditions reveals the nature of the political and administrative challenges facing a government.

2). Make a List of Upcoming Rigged Elections

In recent years, the most sensitive moments for the toughest of dictators seem to be around rigged elections. I've argued this before, but let's not tell the remaining dictators this. The performance of a rigged election was one of the inciting incidents of every high-impact political uprising since the Berlin Wall came down. The National Democratic Institute has a useful list of upcoming elections. It is regularly updated by their experts, so we can all see what's up next in the calendar. They certainly don't prejudge elections as rigged or otherwise. But we can all read their detailed reports on election incidents from yesteryear. Or you can make an educated guess about which countries we will all be reading about. Rigged elections often end up demonstrating a regime's cruelty or fragility.

And fixed elections are especially farcical in the era of social media -- yet another reason social media are important. With mobile phone cameras that catch vote rigging and easy-to-use online tools for mapping fraud incidents in real time, it is getting harder for authoritarian regimes to sell the results of elections where voters aren't choosing politicians, the politicians are choosing their voters.

3). Track Social Media Trends

In important ways, social media is closing the digital divide. Not everybody, or even every family, has access to a computer. But many people and most families in most countries have access to a mobile phone. And there are more and more devices everyday that connect to the Internet and allow for social networking applications.

In China, only Hong Kong runs predictable elections (making it worth watching as per item No. 2) and the country's media infrastructure has been designed from scratch as a tool for political surveillance. Yet social media carries the closest thing to public deliberation allowed: rumors about political succession fly over QQ and Weibo with the speed and excitement of a Beiber sighting. In countries dominated by dirty networks and authoritarian rulers, it is social media that enables some public sphere activity, often even when everyone knows the security services are watching. It is through social media that people get personal stories about the quality of life in other countries.

These days, a significant number of young people, especially young people in developing countries, are building their political identities through social media. It is through social media that a growing number of modern social movements discover and express their shared grievances. And it is through social media that more and more citizens document human rights abuses, corruption, and other injustices. Dictators are learning to use social media, too -- an important trends to track in itself. But civic leaders and desperate activists regularly demonstrate their ingenuity in using digital media to catch dictators off guard.

If you want to start anticipating changes in international politics, watch the news for items about prisons, dig into a particular country's politics when its government is rigging an election, and keep track of the use and censorship of social media. You'll be ready for what's ahead.