A fundamental idea from physics is that macroscopic transitions can occur as a result of an escalation in the correlated activity of a many-body system’s constituent particles. Here we apply this idea in an interdisciplinary setting, whereby the particles are individuals, their correlated activity involves online search activity surrounding the topics of social unrest, and the macroscopic phenomenon being measured are real-world protests. Our empirical study covers countries in Latin America during 2011–2014 using datasets assembled from multiple sources by subject matter experts. We find specifically that the volume and momentum of searches on Google Trends surrounding mass protest language, can detect – and may even pre-empt – the macroscopic on-street activity. Not only can this simple open-source solution prove an invaluable aid for monitoring civil order, our study serves to strengthen the increasing literature in the physics community aimed at understanding the collective dynamics of interacting populations of living objects across the life sciences.