US Capitol attack spurs data scientists to predict next insurrection using AI

By on 19/01/2022 | Updated on 28/01/2022

Data scientists are working to develop AI modelling techniques that can predict outbreaks of political violence following an attack on the US Capitol Building in 2021.

A method of analysis known as ‘unrest prediction’ uses AI algorithms to anticipate political violence in a country, based on historic, economic, and democratic data trends. Unrest prediction tools can then flag potential hotspots for violence across a country, and potentially stop outbreaks before they occur.

CoupCast is one such tool based at the University of Central Florida, which last year said that of 42 national elections scheduled to occur in 2021, around 40% were at high risk of violence. In an article published by The Conversation last year, Clayton Besaw, an affiliated fellow at the university who also helps run CoupCast, said countries with “longer and more recent histories of election violence” were more likely to experience outbreaks of violence in future.

“In democracies, election violence can occur because of bitter partisan competition or as a result of political violence becoming normalised,” he said. “An incumbent leader who directly or indirectly encourages violence to suppress the opposition can also catalyse violence.”

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CoupCast’s database tracks all incidents of political violence going as far back as 1975. These data show that 2020 was the worst year for political violence on its records, with 54% of national elections involved some form of violence. Prior to 2020, the worse year for civil unrest was 1990, where violence occurred in around 46% of elections.

Anticipating insurrection

CoupCast has been used previously to chart and predict political violence in developing countries, but its scientists are now starting to look more closely at its applicability in the US following the Capitol riots in Washington DC last January, in which five people died.

In a recent report by the Washington Post, Roudabeh Kishi, director of research and innovation at the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), another project that looks at predicting political violence, said an attitude of “American exceptionalism” means US experts in unrest prediction have generally ignored the need to apply the method at home. “That needs to change,” she commented.

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The report also included comments from Sheldon Himelfarb, chief executive of the conflict resolution non-profit PeaceTech. Himelfarb said that US experts turning their attentions inward would be needed to prevent events like 6 January 2021 from recurring. “For the 2024 election God knows we absolutely need to be doing this,” he said. PeaceTech is currently planning this year to relaunch Ground Truth, an initiative that similarly refocuses its resources on domestic affairs in the US to tackle violence linked to elections and other democratic public events.

About Jack Aldane

Jack is a British journalist, cartoonist and podcaster. He graduated from Heythrop College London in 2009 with a BA in philosophy, before living and working in China for three years as a freelance reporter. After training in financial journalism at City University from 2013 to 2014, Jack worked at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before moving into editing magazines on global trade and development finance. Shortly after editing opinion writing for UnHerd, he joined the independent think tank ResPublica, where he led a media campaign to change the health and safety requirements around asbestos in UK public buildings. As host and producer of The Booking Club podcast – a conversation series featuring prominent authors and commentators at their favourite restaurants – Jack continues to engage today’s most distinguished thinkers on the biggest problems pertaining to ideology and power in the 21st century. He joined Global Government Forum as its Senior Staff Writer and Community Co-ordinator in 2021.

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