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New political tool: text messaging

By Cathy HongContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / June 30, 2005


Early in May, 16-year-old South Korean Lee Chun-Kil slyly text-messaged his friend during class. He was so skilled at it, he didn't even have to glance down at his cellphone keypad while punching in the following: "Gwanghwamun station. 6:00."

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The text messages rapidly circulated, spreading the news of the spontaneous rally. The next day in downtown Seoul, 400 students gathered to protest the severe pressures they must endure for the nation's highly competitive college-entrance exam. Many decided to come out at the last minute after a text-message they received from a friend. "I don't think the rally would have been big if we didn't have cellphones," says Im Soon-jae, one of the organizers. "We would not have been able to spread the information about this as quickly."

If television helped bring down the Berlin Wall and the fax machine helped protesters organize during the Tiananmen Square protests, cellphone text messaging, also known as SMS (short message services), may be the new political tool for activists. In tech-savvy nations like South Korea, but more so in controlled societies like China and the Middle East, text messaging has been fomenting what some experts call a "mobile democracy." Because it is unmonitored and cheap, it provides an underground channel for succinct uncensored speech. Demonstrators use it to mobilize protests, dodge authorities, and fire off political spam. It has also enabled them to engineer collective action at unprecedented speed.

The Philippines in 2002 provided the first real test of the technology, says Howard Rheingold, author of "Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution." Black-clad protesters, summoned together by a single line passed from phone to phone: "Go 2 EDSA [an acronym for a Manila street]. Wear Blck," eventually helped topple President Joseph Estrada.

Since then, the use of SMS as a political tool has become much more widespread, Mr. Rheingold says. "Huge events are happening because of it. I can think of multiple countries from all different parts of the world where elections have been affected by people spontaneously mobilizing together."

In South Korea, for example, many experts agree that current President Roh Moo Hyun would not have been elected without the help of the Internet and SMS. Back in December 2002, conservative mainstream media favored his rival Lee Hoi Chang to win the election, especially when a former rival who had endorsed Mr. Roh unexpectedly withdrew his support on the eve of Election Day. But Roh's core supporters, who were of the younger "information technology" generation, launched a massive last-minute campaign. They fired off e-mails and text messages to 800,000 voters on the morning of election day, urging them to go to the polls.

With the support of alternative news websites like OhMyNews and SMS messaging, Roh won the presidency by a slim 2 percent margin. "I heard stories where Koreans would interrupt their ski trips and come into the city to vote because of panicked text messages from friends," says Jean Min, OhMyNews international director. "You might not trust what is coming out of the TV, but you take it seriously when the message comes from a friend."

In nations such as China, where the Internet is censored, cellphones may play an even more important role. They're one of the few means to get the word out without being monitored. China also happens to have the largest cellphone market, with approximately 350 million users. Last December, 12,000 Chinese workers went on strike against a supplier of Wal-Mart. Although they weren't part of a union, they mobilized through the use of SMS.

"It's like the poor person's Internet," Rheingold says. "A fisherman in China might not have a computer, but he has a mobile phone which tells him which port to fish, the market prices, and so on."

For three weeks this spring, China was in the grips of mass anti-Japanese protests. Chinese youths had been sending chain-letter e-mails and text messages exhorting citizens to boycott Japanese merchandise and take to the streets, giving logistical information on protest routes and even what slogans to chant. Although the messages had no clear organizational identity, they helped draw 20,000 people together for a public march on April 16.