Mastering Chaos – Thoughts on Civil Disobedience Escalation

Mastering Chaos – Thoughts on Civil Disobedience Escalation


This is an analysis of civil disobedience movements across the world, carried out over the last few years. In the era of ubiquitous smartphones, cameras, mobile Internet and social media, the nature of civil disobedience movements and the way they are initiated, managed and concluded has drastically changed.

In this short article, we try to pick certain trends and patterns in such movements. We also offer some thoughts on how to diffuse these movements before the escalation to violence takes place.

From inception to conflagration – the lifecycle of a civil disobedience event

The recent few protests over the last decade in India bring out certain patterns in the lifecycle of a civil disobedience event. We have been studying such events since the 2011 Arab Spring, centered at Tahrir Square, Cairo.

Some other events that we have studied are:

  • Euromaidan event in November 2013.
  • The Jan Lokpal Anti-Corruption Movement in 2011
  • Occupy Wall Street, 2011

These events usually have their genesis in a single, long-standing issue that has been simmering for years. The issue is then conflated with other proximate and sometimes unrelated social tensions.

The events take the form of peaceful protests with mass participation from common people which are then escalated into violence through generation of a disproportionate response from authorities.

Like forest fires, the environment plays a large role in whether these conflagrations die down back into simmering mode or whether they turn into a raging fire. In the case of the Arab Spring protests, they plunged large regions of the world into chaos and savagery. On the other hand, the Occupy Wall Street protests were quickly extinguished, without eliminating the players involved.

These events involve the manufacture of positive opinions and mobilizing participation from large sections of the middle class.

  • Genesis:
    • The events must play out within a period of less than a month in order to sustain public and media interest.
    • These events are usually co-ordinated before or after a long stretch of holidays, a long weekend and a local festival. This gives the middle class, usually preoccupied with humdrum questions of daily existence, some spare time in which they watch more television and spend more time on social media than usual.
    • The civil disobedience has the initial face of a person or persons that can garner popular middle-class support. It is not necessary that these individuals must be co-opted into the larger plan. It is enough that they carry the image of honesty and trustworthiness. In the jallikattu protests, it was the activists Kartikeya Sivasenapathy, Rajendran and Hip Hop Tamizha Adhi. The faces of the Jan Lok Pal movement were the venerable Gandhian Anna Hazare and eminent personalities such as Kiran Bedi. In the Arab Spring, it was the Egyptian activist and Google employee Wael Ghonim.
    • The movement coalesces around a single event that is a genuine travesty of justice.
    • The first acceptable faces are initially given sufficient space on television. Clips of interviews, live recordings are then shared through YouTube, Facebook, and WhatsApp.
  • Incubation:
    • Through social media, the middle class is invited to participate in the protest.
    • Anonymous individuals, usually young and articulate people, are made the face of the protest. Pictures and videos of them speaking and protesting are made to go viral.
    • The press then finds important celebrities and makes them give key sound bytes on the topic.
    • The protest needs a celebrity to play the Devil. In authoritarian countries, the leader of Government him/herself is a convenient villain oppressing helpless people. It is also often rooted in facts. In the case of jallikattu protests, the villains were the uncaring North Indian leadership at Delhi, with a good dose of anti-Brahmin sentiment thrown in.
    • The protest is now centered around a public space, sufficiently large to host thousands of people and central enough to be easily accessible by public transport.
  • Diffusion:
    • The protests now take the form of gentle slogans, with lots of creativity and humor.
    • Participants who leave the venue are urged to duplicate the same protest in different locations. This has the effect of decentralizing the protests.
    • Also, if many unrelated people can be shown to share the same common cause in protest, it gains legitimacy.
    • The role of mainstream media becomes critical at this point. In a time of many TV channels, the channel that uses the best footage, repeated again and again, both wins eyeballs and creates creative energy around the event.
    • At this point, the event takes the character of a public celebration, with live performances, music and participation of families.
    • While seemingly decentralized and self-organizing, the protests are coordinated by a group of 100 people or lesser. They move through the crowd, initiating slogans and turning the mood of the public. They also arrange for food, water and entertainment, whenever interest flags.
  • Infiltration:
    • A hard-core group of activists, which is the kernel for the next phase – conflagration – now starts participating in the protest.
    • They move through the crowd, merging with the general public.
    • They set the tone for the next step, escalation.
  • Escalation:
    • At this point, the hard-core activists seize public mood and start slogans aimed at people in authority.
    • The point is now to provoke the Government machinery, especially law enforcement, into disproportionate action.
    • The intent is to escalate, but not lose the crowd.
    • So, the tone and pitch are ratcheted up and down to ensure that the law enforcement authorities are provoked without turning away the general public.
  • Conflagration:
    • After a point, the civic order is sufficiently disturbed through traffic snarls, piling up garbage, etc. that the civic authorities are forced into action.
    • This point is ideal for the escalation to quickly explode into conflict with the police.
    • Now, the hard-core activist group quickly descends into action.
    • First targets are inanimate, public property and vehicles.
    • Then, law enforcement authorities have to resort to physical action. This is when the action moves into stone-pelting, arson and other crimes.
    • A situation is now created for the media and humans rights organizations to bring pressure on the Government.

Key actors


An operation of this nature needs funding for:

  • Travel, stay and payment for the core few hundred agitators that are likely to cause the conflagration.
  • Mobilization of the less than 100 entertainers and crowd hustlers who keep the second ‘Diffusion’ face sustained.
  • In many cases, providing food and other sustenance for a few thousand people through a few days.
  • Influencing media to provide sympathetic coverage for the protests throughout all stages.

The first three require small money payouts. The budgets could be less than a few crore rupees directly. However, the political outfits that lend out their agitators could expect much larger payouts at an earlier or later stage.

The last is often managed through influence rather than direct money payout since the funding entity often has its own media arm or at least a PRO operation. However, it is obvious that the last part is not possible except if the financing agency is a sufficiently large business entity.

Acceptable Faces

These fall into two categories:

  • Willingly co-opted
  • Unwittingly used

Often, the second category would be shocked to know the real purpose of the protests and the use their sincerity and acceptability are being put to. Until the second phase, diffusion, it is not possible for an observer to discern the true purpose of the protests. At this point, it is prudent to reach out to the second category and quickly extricate them from the situation.


This is a critical part since usually, the hard-core activists belong to fringe political outfits with limited budgets and small presence on the ground.

In Latin America, organizations such as the CIA have acknowledged the capability of the Catholic Church, which is augmented in recent times by various evangelical organizations.

In India, the Church is rivaled in reach and spread by the RSS and some spiritual-cultural organizations such as the Art of Living or the Swami Ramdev devotees.

In West Asia and North Africa, the Muslim Brotherhood and its splinter organizations fulfill this role.

What does this player do?

  • Put the word out, surreptitiously or openly, to their affiliates and adherents to trend sympathetic messages, videos, and images on social media.
  • In regular meetings, such as Sunday services or shakhas, advise followers on the importance of the issue.
  • It is not necessary that the operations group asks its followers to support the demonstrations or participate. Their implied support is enough.

This is the part of the organization that actually transports protestors to the venue, arranges for food and water for the protestors, manages shelter in case of rains or snow at the venue. Their teams also maintain order during the Diffusion phase to make the entire event acceptable to the middle class.

Political Opposition

Political opposition need not participate directly. Their role is usually automatic and their support need not even be sought. Opposition plays up the repressive nature of the regime and brings in outside actors – NGOs, Human Rights Organizations and Judiciary – to embarrass the regime. In case the issue does not have support across the political spectrum, the Opposition can be very effective in stalling progress towards a resolution, especially in a democracy where resolution involves legislative action.

As such, the primary role of political opposition is in involving external actors and stalling progress towards resolution.

Management strategies

There are several strategies a Government can adopt to rein in such chaotic situations. These are the common aspects:

  • Fight the information war with counter-propaganda.
  • Infiltrate the core organizations.
  • Compromise media in such a way that it is sympathetic to the Government position.
  • Curb the source of money.
  • Destabilize the operational group by leveraging splits and internal dissensions.

It is also important to recognize when a Government wishes to step in and take control of the situation.

  • Incubation stage:
    • It is important to recognize that modern societies, especially urban societies, carry many frustrations that remain unresolved. Agrarian societies have many mechanisms built-in for relief to these societal pressures that are unavailable to urban societies, especially in developing countries where the modalities and infrastructure of urban living are yet to be resolved.
    • Governments can themselves clandestinely create such situations for demonstration and political mobilization. These can be given the nature of a spontaneous gathering or protest and diffused fully under the control of the Government.
    • These have the nature of ‘controlled explosions’, to relieve societal pressures without any long-term negative impacts.
  • Diffusion stage:
    • It is absolutely critical the Government recognizes the nature of the situation and identifies key actors by this stage.
    • Unless this is done, the battle is already lost.
    • At this stage, the primary strategy is to confuse the demonstrators – offer them many options out of the problem, and negate that a problem ever exists.
    • This is the primary focus of information warfare.

Counter-information warfare

Given that the primary nature of these types of attacks is in the realm of information and opinion creation, the battleground is on social media and mainstream TV channels. The goal would be to capture the hearts and minds of the middle class.

In order to do this, there can be several strategies.

  • Create sympathy for the ruling dispensation among people.
  • Discredit the key actors spearheading the movement.


Authorities must create anonymous Facebook pages and Twitter handles that consistently take a neutral position and constantly attack both ruling and opposition dispensations.

At no point must the pages ever discuss the hidden actors – funding sources or the large critical-mass organizing groups. The people running these pages must be typically younger, well-read and generate humorous memes and funny videos. It is also important that these refer to popular culture – local movies are very important; the many *woods in India and pop music.

It is also important that these pages and handles discuss apolitical themes and topics, and thus garner followers from a wide variety of people across all walks of life and across different points of view in the political spectrum. They must stay apolitical for a year or more before they can take on a political hue. Some very popular handles and pages can stay apolitical until they can be used for an event.

It is also important that one or more of these handles or pages are abruptly discontinued citing threats from the group that one wishes to target.

Authorities must also insist that these anonymous FB pages and Twitter handles reach out to various disaffected individuals and conduct private conversations with them. In this way, it is easy to identify events ahead of time.

Also, such disaffected individuals are the first to circulate conspiracy theories and videos, even before they go viral. This will help in preparing counter-theories and counter-propaganda before virality.

WhatsApp Messenger groups can be formed consisting of retired law enforcement and senior Government personnel. Their services can be used, along with housewives and middle-aged professionals, in order to disseminate the Government’s view and counter-information.

Sympathetic Protesters

A good section of the protestors can be seeded with individuals from the ruling party or from sympathetic social organizations. These protestors would ensure that the movement remains peaceful and occurs in a friendly atmosphere, enabling back-door negotiations.

There can also be entertainers sponsored by the government that would enter the protest arena as volunteers for the campaign. Quick shows and entertainments can keep the crowd in a cheerful mood and stave off aggressive behavior. However, this is useful only as a stalling tactic to prolong the diffusion stage. Escalation has to happen eventually. It is essential that negotiations are concluded within this period.


Usually, questioning the sources of income for important members of the demonstration works very well. Picking out instances where they have worked or consulted for any corporate or multi-national organization usually serves well to discredit such individuals.

It is also important that parents of young people are negatively disposed towards the protest. There are two means of doing this.

  • Alleging claims of rampant drug abuse or sexual misconduct on the part of the younger section of the protestors. Videos from the same location but from different times can be used suggestively.
  • Claiming violence and spreading rumors of imminent crackdowns, without any such crackdown actually occurring.

It is also useful to have a mid-level officer from law enforcement of older age be sent to negotiate with the protestors. A section of the crowd can be shown to engage in unruly and rude behavior towards an elderly person, thereby turning the middle-class opinion against the protest.


The Government must have assets embedded in all groups. During the diffusion stage, younger Government officials such as junior constables and clerical staff must be pressed into duty to dress similar to the protesters and move through the crowds.

  • This staff would be very useful in picking up pictures and videos of activities and behavior that would typically shock middle-class people and turn them away from the protestors.
  • They would also be useful in swarming around critical venues that tend to turn violent and help in dissipating violence.
  • They must be provided with information about known delinquents and criminal elements from the hard-core group that would take over the protests and enable the descent into violence.
  • These individuals must be amply supported by electronic means – camera-equipped drones are a critical feature of crowd control. Drones can quickly identify potential hot spots, keep combing the entire region for crimes being carried out, and also keep up the search for criminals.
  • Once the criminals are identified, junior officials can serve as baiters to provoke them into criminal acts. This serves like ‘flypaper’ – sticky paper that flies are caught on – so that other criminals rush to start violence prematurely. When violence is either delayed or started prematurely, without a critical mass of violent demonstrators, it is easy for law enforcement authorities to swoop in and pre-emptively take criminals into custody. Thus, a person who would have burnt a police vehicle or thrown stones can be provoked into a scuffle and quickly disarmed by law enforcement officials in plain clothes.

Drones are also useful in monitoring exit and entrance routes that are not visible to the public. Everything said, 1 drone per 10,000 sq.ft. would be a good approximation to calculate how many drones can be deployed.

Featured Image: NBC News

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