Friday, August 25, 2006, WaPo: Text Mobs

Mary Jordan has a front-pager in the Washington Post detailing how social movements use text messaging to surmount attempts to contain dissent:

Cellphones and text messaging are changing the way political mobilizations are conducted around the world. From Manila to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, andKathmandu, Nepal, protests once publicized on coffeehouse bulletin boards are now organized entirely through text-messaging networks that can reach vast numbers of people in a matter of minutes.

The technology is also changing the organization and dynamics of protests, allowing leaders to control, virtually minute-by-minute, the movements of demonstrators, like military generals in the field. Using texts that communicate orders instantly, organizers can call for advances or retreats of waves of protesters.

This tool has changed the balance of political power in places where governments have a history of outmuscling dissent. In April, Nepal's King Gyanendra ordered authorities to cut cellphone service after protesters against his absolute rule used text messages to help assemble street protests by tens of thousands of democracy advocates.

The Philippines, widely called the text-messaging center of the world, has led the way. When President Joseph Estrada was forced from office in 2001, he bitterly complained that the popular uprising against him was a "coup de text."The best part of the story documents a real-time Filipino protest designed to overwhelm the police's ability to disperse it:

At 1:30 p.m. on a recent day, Palatino and three students lingered near the doughnut case in the 7-Eleven on a congested corner of Morayta Street. They stood in the air-conditioned cool, cellphones in hand, waiting for a text....

They knew police had been ordered to disperse unauthorized crowds near the presidential palace and would not hesitate to use wooden batons and water cannons to do it. So organizers wanted to make sure that everyone converged at the same time to make the rally harder to break up.

Soon Palatino's phone was alive with a flurry of texts from coordinators and marchers anxious to start.

One asked: "Are the media here?"

About a dozen TV cameramen and newspaper photographers gathered outside. They, too, had been summoned by text.

At 1:45, Palatino's phone pinged again, this time with the message: "ASSEMBLE RIGHT NOW!"
A smile crossed his face. With a few more taps of his thumbs, he forwarded the command down the text brigade ranks. He sent it to those on his phone list, and each who received it did the same. In seconds, about 1,000 students were in the street, stopping traffic and sending cars and bicycle taxis scattering.

Two students quickly hooked up a public address system to the battery of a vehicle. One by one, leaders climbed on top of it to fire up the crowd. Palatino demanded that President Arroyo do more to end the [unsolved] killings and allocate more money for universities.
"Books, not bullets!" he shouted.

The all-at-once strategy worked: The police were caught off guard. Only a few officers were on the scene, and they quickly pulled out their own cellphones to make urgent voice calls. Note to self: add to paper on IT's effect on state-society relations.

posted by Dan on 8.24.06, 8:22pm

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