Sunday, August 23, 2009

A short history of Organising resistance using New Tools

As development of the recent post by Luna17 I list below an incomplete and overly short summary of some of the political upheavals where mobile phones and online means have been used to organise protest:

1999 - US - protests surrounding the 1999 World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle.

"The first real breakthrough in using cell phones for advocacy came in organizing demonstrations, although the phones still served as glorified walkie-talkies. If even a handful of people involved in a demonstration had cell phones, information could be passed very efficiently from the leaders to the demonstrators, and vice versa.

One of the most widely reported examples of this use was the series of protests surrounding the 1999 World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle. The mostly young protesters were part of the country's most plugged-in demographic, and many of them had brought their cell phones to the protest with them. The phones were used to coordinate demonstrations, and because a critical threshold of participants had cell phones, demonstrators could react to changes in the protest plan with astonishing quickness. These protests also showed a more subversive side of using cell phones for organizing - their relative privacy. Police were not able to listen in on conversations between protest leaders and protesters on the streets, which meant protesters, were able to avoid police. Protesters were also able to speak to the press while in the thick of the protests, and if needed, call their lawyers.

This is not to say that cell phones were the answer to all logistical problems in demonstrations. The main problem with using cell phones solely as mobile telephones is a severe limit on the number of people that can communicate at once. Most of the time, one person has to call another person, who then calls a third person, not unlike the phone trees that organizers have been using seemingly since the beginning of time. Even the briefest exchange still takes a relatively long time, especially when compared to a brief email or instant message. This began to change with the increasing use of non-voice cellular phone tools, such as text messaging" Showcase Groups: Using Cell Phones in Advocacy

2001 - Philipines anti-Estrada protests

Over a million people gathered to protest against the corrupt government of Joseph Estrada in favor of the presidency of Gloria Arroyo, the current president. The instant communication and organization enabled by the use of SMS played an important role in the success of the demonstration. Some even joked that the peaceful revolution was a "coup de text," referring to the instrumental role that SMS played in the ouster of Estrada.
Mobile Phones in Mass Organizing: A Mobile - Active White Paper
by Corinne Ramey, edited by Katrin Verclas

2004 - Spain protests against Aznar on the eve of election, leading to defeat for government previously leading in the polls

"The Spanish general election of 2004 occurred in the wake of an unprecedented terrorist attack, but its outcome reflects the potential that mobile phones have to provide the user with independent information and bring about voter mobilisation.

The impression – whether true or not – that the government was withholding information about the attack outraged a small number of voters who, empowered with mobile phones, sent text messages (known as SMS), resulting in unprecedented flash demonstrations on election day eve. Traditional media outlets contributed further to a growing chorus of citizens who felt misled.

Those who tend not to vote, young voters and new voters, were galvanised to go to the polls, and they disproportionately favoured the opposition party.

While it is too early to determine the political effects of mobile phone diffusion, the events in Spain suggest that mobile technology may come to play an important role in political participation and democracy.
Sandra L. Suárez

2004 - Orange revolution in Ukraine

The court-ordered election rematch in Ukraine featuring opposition presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, probably would not have happened were it not for mobile phone technologies.

The technologies - text messaging services in particular - enabled hundreds of thousands of youthful demonstrators to coordinate their activities and take to the streets of Kiev to contest the November election results, experts told UPI's Wireless World.Wireless World: The 'Orange Revolution'
Dec 27, 2004

2006 - California protests against the proposed anti-immigration law, HR 4437, organised via MySpace

"In California's largest public school district, more than 100,000 students - one-quarter of the middle school and high school population - boycotted class on the May 1 "day without immigrants."...Many students got involved through, a social networking website that lets people link to friends and create profiles with photos and music. With 70 million members, most of whom are teenagers, it is one of the top ten most popular destinations on the Internet.

Students were already communicating about their lives through MySpace, so when immigration became a hot issue, why not that too? Sprinkled through the website's millions of pages, comments cropped up about the protests, the national boycott and how students felt about Congress trying to criminalize their parents' existence.

The Dallas Morning News reported that the pro-immigration rallies may be "the largest political gathering organized on [MySpace].
"MySpace, MyPolitics
Ari Melber
May 30, 2006

2007 Xiamen, China

On May 31, 2007, authorities in Xiamen halted construction of a large petro-chemical plant, following a furious Internet, street, and text campaign. The story began on a few local blogs, spread wide on the Internet with sites like, and street graffiti.

"A stand-off over a potentially dangerous chemical plant ended Friday in the center of Xiamen after thousands of protesters energized by widespread SMS text messages repeatedly charged police lines and the police backed down, letting the marchers through.

Even in China, where authorities spend huge amounts of time and effort to monitor and block Internet traffic, the Xiamen protest illustrates the explosive power of the online and texting community and the inability of authorities to choke it off.

By Friday afternoon, the Internet had exploded with photos, videos and live updates on such social websites as Twitter, Flickr, Tudou and countless blogs and forums. The revolution may not be televised, but it will most certainly be blogged." SMS Texts Energize a Chinese Protest
Asia Sentinel
Friday, 01 June 2007

2007 Pakistan

In Pakistan, an anti-Musharraf ringtone and thousands of mobile text messages were used to organize protests after the Pakistani prime minister dismissed the country's Chief Justice on May 9. Subsequent mass protests resulted in additinal stringent media restrictions. According to,

"Musharraf has of late ratified stringent measures to curtail media freedom. He did not realise, however, that dissent would find an outlet in Pakistan’s growing cellphone subscriber base. A massive campaign against Musharraf has been launched recently by the general public on cellphones.

The ‘Go Musharraf Go’ ring tone is resounding in Pakistan these days, mostly on the phones of those using the services of Mobilink. A senior Mobilink official in Islamabad, who did not want to reveal his identity, said that the number of anti-Musharraf text messages being sent and received every day runs into millions. The ‘Go Musharraf’ tone — recorded from chants of real-life protests — has been embraced by lawyers and opposition activists. But the public is just as thrilled with the insurgent trill.

As for the dictator-dissing messages, a typical SMS asks: “Who will be saved if a boat carrying Musharraf and his Corps Commanders sinks?” The answer turns out to be ‘Pakistan’.
quoted in 'Speed of Wordwide SMS Campaigns Quickening, As Is Backlash'

2008 Kashmir protetsts

As the mainly Muslim Kashmir valley erupted into protests last month after a row over transfer of land in the region snowballed into a movement for freedom from India, armies of mobile-phone toting youngsters began trawling the city to record the events.

The images and recordings of those momentous events have been swapped between friends, or put up on popular video sharing sites.

One of those, YouTube, spits out nearly 250 results when a search is done for "Srinagar protest" and many of these clips have been put up by youngsters from the valley.

There are now mobile phone recordings being swapped around which have reached almost cult status.

A pro-freedom procession, security forces thrashing children playing in a city park, a friend or a neighbour shot down during a protest, a funeral procession.

In a way, the images and clips comprise an uneven chronicle of the troubled life and times in the valley by these "citizen journalists" of Kashmir.

"This is a new trend in Kashmir. There are a lot of young people moving around the city with such mobile phone recordings," says Amjad Mir of Sen TV, a local news and current affairs channel.
Kashmir's mobile phone chroniclers

2008 South Korea

Popular anger gradually built and then on 19 April, when Lee travelled to the US and made an agreement with Bush to allow imports of American beef, this anger exploded. This agreement drastically eased the regulations dealing with the risk of beef infected with BSE. At first the protests against this agreement centred around internet communities. An online petition set up by a high school student attracted more than a million signatures in no time.

In the early stages of the candlelight protests the active participation of young people was particularly noticeable and this reflected their anger against Lee Myung-bak’s education privatisation plans. Middle and high school education in Korea is extremely oppressive and there is intense competition to do well in university entrance exams. However, the Lee government’s plans to destroy public eduction would clearly drive young people into even more oppressive conditions. One of the slogans that the young people brought to the demonstrations was “Let’s eat a little, let’s sleep a little”. It’s a slogan that shows clearly the sort of position they are in where they have to go to school before dawn and then study at cram schools until late in the evening.

This anger and sense of crisis exploded into the open in the candlelight demonstrations. On the first day the sight of 20,000 people filling the streets was a real shock. On that day everyone was surprised at the scale and the confidence of the demonstration: the internet-based group that had called the demo, the participants themselves and the police.
ISJ 120

2008 Egypt

"Today the most effective political Web site would be YouTube. With the pervasiveness of mobile phone cameras, it is rare to hear of a human rights violation, a political event or a major incident that isn't accompanied with a mobile phone video published on YouTube.

Videos documenting police brutality in the streets and leaked videos of torture inside police stations published on YouTube were at the core of a strong anti-torture campaign and were effectively used as evidence in court. For the first time in Egyptian history, a powerful, well-connected police officer was sentenced for torturing a poor citizen. There are currently various similar cases, all centered around leaked video evidence. We now know that these videos had already reached several journalists, but they didn't dare broadcast them.

Most recently, when the industrial town of Mahalla was under press embargo as Egyptian security forces stormed town in an attempt to break an industrial strike and a political protest by force, killing at least three citizens and injuring dozens (not to mention the arrests), I counted over 60 videos of street violence in Mahalla published on YouTube. While some of the footage made it onto al-Jazeera and the BBC, the video of angry protesters tearing down a huge poster of president Mubarak can only be seen on YouTube."In Egypt, YouTube Trumps Facebook
Posted by Alaa Abd El Fattah on May 29, 2008 12:52 PM

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