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Hand-held people power at Web speed

By Ilene R. Prusher Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 1, 2000


In the last Philippines uprising 14 years ago, dictator Ferdinand Marcos was toppled by activists using ham-radio broadcasts and mimeographed fliers. It took years to build political momentum and months to organize a single "people power" rally.

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Today's protesters are armed with Web-linked mobile phones and Internet mass mailings. And the opponents of President Joseph Estrada, who faces an impeachment trial next week, are putting tens of thousands of people into the streets of Manila in a matter of minutes.

Call it "spam democracy" or "instant protesting," but the pace of events in this society now offers a cautionary tale for government leaders everywhere.

"It's a perfect instrument for insurrection," says Alexander Magno, only half jokingly, as he thumbs the rubber buttons of a sleek blue mobile phone to read a text message.

"It's like pizza delivery. We'll deliver the rally to you on the spot," says the University of the Philippines political science professor and presidential critic. For example, earlier this week, 20 protest groups formed in different locations around metro Manila before forming five larger ones that united at the Presidential Palace.

"I don't think Estrada understands that he's getting hammered in cyberspace," Professor Mango adds. "The technologies of protest have taken a quantum leap from where they were before. We're not out painting on the walls anymore like we used to in the good old days."

Indeed, it has taken barely two months to rally massive public opposition to Mr. Estrada, who faces a Senate impeachment trial for allegedly pocketing about $11 million from tobacco-tax kickbacks and illegal gambling operations.

Estrada's trial in the court of public opinion, however, has already begun with the mounting reports of a lavish and lascivious lifestyle, a recent accumulation of real estate, and a pattern of cabaret-style cabinet meetings that have called into question his ability to govern.

The public has been made aware of the apparent escapades of Estrada in real-time. Professor Mango says that initially he was receiving about 10 anti-Estrada text messages - the latest perk of mobile Internet technology - each day. Now, he gets about 80.

"It's easy now to bring a million people to the streets nationwide," he says. "In a fast-changing situation, every cellphone becomes a transmitter. It's a far cry from when we had to deliver [fliers] to the provinces by courier," he says, recalling the difficulties of reaching outlying areas of the Philippines during the Marcos era.

Forced to call elections, Marcos succumbed to the swell of domestic and international criticism that sent him and his shoe-hoarding wife into exile, allowing Corazon Aquino to take control in 1986.

Today, there are more than 200 Web sites dedicated to the anti-Estrada campaign. Some are comical clearinghouses of jokes and cartoons; more serious endeavors include petitions of electronic signatures demanding the president's resignation. Activists download anti-Estrada songs and logos, and then arrive at rallies around the country with the same signs and slogans, building an image of national consensus.