SEOUL — 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."
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.
Since the government has yet to find a way to efficiently filter cellphones, its only defense was to send its own text-message, urging people to follow the law and maintain order.
The technology represents a challenge to the government. After the Tiananmen protests, Chinese authorities passed laws requiring that all demonstrations be preapproved by local public-security agencies. "Now, one can use SMS and e-mails to organize a large-scale protest without asking government permission," says Qiang Xiao, director of the Chinese Internet Project at the University of California at Berkeley. "Today's Chinese youth have much more powerful communication tools in their hands."
Text messaging has also widely affected the Middle East. In March, citizens of Lebanon used e-mails and text messaging to organize a huge rally in Beirut, drawing together 1 million demonstrators to demand the withdrawal of Syrian troops and the resignation of the government. Late in April, due to pressures from the United Nations and mass anti-Syrian demonstrations, 14,000 troops finally pulled out, ending Syria's 29-year presence in Lebanon.
In Kuwait, women mobilized in record numbers to rally for the right to vote. Unlike past years, this year's protests have been much more effective because text messaging allowed Kuwaiti demonstrators to pull young people out of school and into the streets, according to press reports. Their efforts paid off. Kuwait passed a landmark amendment in May, granting women the right to vote and to run for parliamentary and local council positions.
Of course, text messaging can also land in the hands of terrorist groups. Al Qaeda has been using mobile communication to organize. There also have been cases where text messaging has led to violence, as in Nigeria during the Miss World pageant in 2002, when more than 200 people were killed in riots. "I don't attribute good or evil to mobilizing," says Rheingold. "In fact, when it comes to elections, you want people to think and deliberate. You don't want people to vote impulsively."
But activists are cautiously hopeful that technology can continue to puncture holes in societies where free expression is limited. North Korea, among the most isolated regimes in the world, could be the last frontier for cellphones. Since 2003, there has been an influx of Chinese cellphones smuggled in despite government efforts to ban them. Reportedly, some 20,000 North Koreans can call relatives in China, make business transactions, and follow foreign news. For a nation fed only on government propaganda, a cellphone can be a key link to the outside world. Human rights activists, who for years have been smuggling in radios to break the regime's wall of misinformation, are also eyeing the new technology.
"With radios, it takes many hours of airtime to convince North Koreans that there's something else out there," says Douglas Shin, an activist who has helped North Koreans fleeing the country. "But with a cellphone, it can take one call to change someone's mind."
In 1992, engineer Neil Papworth reportedly sent the first text message - "Merry Christmas" - to his colleagues at Britain's Vodafone. The rest is history, as young people have taken to tapping out short messages of no more than 160 characters on cellphones and other mobile devices. For example:
• Text messaging has exploded in many countries. Americans send nearly 7 million messages an hour, but that's small potatoes compared to, say, Britain. With only a fifth of the US population, it manages to send half that number every hour.
• Dentsu, a leading ad agency in Japan, is using the technology to market to consumers. So are spammers.
• Music fans sent 2,060,385 text messages in their bid to get tickets for London's Live 8 concert next month, making it the largest text-message lottery so far.
• Concerns remain - from doctors, worried about the health effects of typing with thumbs, to educators, who wonder what will happen to English if teens keep typing "RUUP4IT?" on tiny screens.
Sources: US Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association; UK Mobile Data Association; Guinness Book of Records; news reports.