Introduction: civil society and communication technology
The structuring of civil society evolves with its institutional, cultural, and technological context. The more this context maximises the chances of autonomy vis-à-vis the state, the more civil society empowers itself. Interactive electronic communication, and particularly wireless communication, provides a powerful platform for political autonomy on the basis of independent channels of autonomous communication, from person to person, and from group to group. The communication networks that mobile telephony makes possible can be formed and re-formed instantly, and messages are received from a known source, enhancing their credibility. The network logic of the communication process makes it a high-volume communication channel, but with a considerable degree of personalisation and interactivity. In this sense, the wide availability of individually controlled wireless communication effectively bypasses the mass media as a source of information, and creates a new public space.
Without prejudging on the desirability of political autonomy (because, naturally, it can be used to support very different kinds of political values and interests), we have observed a growing tendency by people in different contexts to use wireless communication to voice their discontent with the powers that be, and to organise protests by inducing ‘flash mobilisations’ that have sometimes made a considerable impact on formal politics and government decisions. To document this tendency, and to explore its implications, we analyse in this chapter four cases of political mobilisation in which wireless communication played a significant role. These are the ousting of President Estrada from the Philippines in 2001, the election of Korean President Moo-Hyun in 2002, the electoral defeat of the Spanish Partido Popular in 2004 and the organisation of a series of protests during the US Republican Party’s national convention in 2004. In the final section of our chapter we consider two cases in which wireless communication did not result in socio-political mobilisation, and emphasise the importance of political frameworks and institutions in shaping the uses of technology. Thus we briefly discuss the factors underlying the political apathy of mobile phone subscribers in Japan and especially in China during the SARS epidemic of 2003. In our view, any attempt to understand civil society, both global and local, in the twenty-first century will have to pay attention to the interplay between institutions, technology and values in the process and outcomes of social organisation and social mobilisation.
The Philippines: People Power II
In January 2001 thousands of cell-phone touting Filipinos took part in massive demonstrations now dubbed ‘People Power II’ (following the original People Power movement that overthrew Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos in 1986). This four-day event has become legendary as the first occasion in human history when the mobile phone played an instrumental role in removing the head of the government of a nation-state (Bagalawis 2001; see also Salterio 2001: 25).
On 30 June 1998 Joseph Estrada, a well-known actor and populist candidate, was sworn in as the 13th president of the Philippines. From the beginning of his presidency, Estrada was subjected to allegations of corruption including mishandling of public funds, accepting bribery, and using illegal income to buy houses for his mistresses. The most serious charge that led to his expulsion from office came in October 2000, when he was accused of receiving US$80 million from a gambling pay-off scheme and several more million from tobacco tax kickbacks. On 12 October Vice-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, a Harvard-trained economist and the daughter of former president Diosdado Macapagal, resigned from the cabinet and later become the leader of what would soon become People Power II (Pamantalaang Mindanaw 2000).
On 18 October 2000 opposition groups filed an impeachment motion against Estrada in the House of Representatives. Protests started to emerge in Manila. In less than a month, dozens of senior officials and lawmakers from Estrada’s ruling party withdrew their support, including both the Senate president and the House speaker. On 7 December the Senate impeachment trial formally began. Multiple investigations took place, revealing more and more evidence against Estrada.
Soon, a violent disaster disrupted the political life of the entire country. On 30 December 2000, five bombs exploded in Manila, killing 22 people and injuring more than 120 (Philippine Daily Inquirer 2001). The explosions were synchronised to hit the city’s crowded public spaces, including the airport, a light-rail train, a bus, a gas station, and a park near the US embassy (The Australian 2001). A police investigation incriminated Jemaah Islamiyah, a Muslim rebel group that was later linked to Al-Qaida (Associated Press 2003), although many suspected at the time that the explosions were linked to Estrada’s impeachment trial.
The massive demonstrations of People Power II lasted for the four days 16–20 January. The group of senator-judges serving at the impeachment trial resigned on the 17 January and the case was suspended indefinitely. With increasing pressure from protesters led by Gloria Arroyo and other former officials, the Defence Secretary and Finance Secretary resigned on 19 January to join the opposition. By then, the Estrada cabinet had basically collapsed, with most of its key posts abandoned; most importantly, the military had sided with demonstrators. On 20 January 2001 Estrada was escorted out of the Malacanang Palace by the Armed Forces Chief of Staff and Vice Chief of Staff. By the end of the day, the Supreme Court had declared the presidency vacant, Gloria Arroyo had been sworn in, and People Power II concluded on a triumphant note.
News coverage of the demonstrations invariably highlights the role of new communication technologies, especially short message service (SMS) and the internet, in facilitating the protests. On one account, anti-Estrada information began to accumulate in online forums as soon as he took office in 1998, amounting to some 200 web sites and about 100 e-mail discussion groups by the time People Power II started (Pabico n.d.). A famous online forum is E-Lagda.com, which collected 91,000 e-signatures to support the impeachment through both the internet and SMS (Bagalawis 2001). Besides imparting pure information, many internet and text messages poked fun at Estrada, his (allegedly) corrupted life, and his poor English.
While this kind of semi-serious communication continued for more than two years, allowing for the expression of widespread discontent, it was texting that made possible the swift gathering of tens of thousands immediately after the crucial Senate vote of 16 January. According to a member of the Generation Txt who joined the demonstrations, she was on a date in the evening when the news broke (Uy-Tioco 2003: 1–2). She first received a message from her best friend: ‘I THNK UD BETR GO HME NW (I think you’d better go home now).’ But by the time she got home, already pretty late in the evening, she received numerous messages from others such as: ‘NOISE BARRAGE AT 11PM’, ‘GO 2 EDSA, WEAR BLACK 2 MOURN D DEATH F DEMOCRACY.’ She then quickly followed the instructions:
I barely had time to kick off my high heels and slip on my sneakers when my mom, brother, and I jumped into the car and joined the cars in our neighborhood in honking horns in protest. And then to Edsa we went. At midnight, there were a couple of hundred people. Families clad in pajamas, teenagers in party clothes, men and women in suits fresh from happy hour, college students clutching books obviously coming from a study group, nuns and priests.
During the week of People Power II, Smart Communications Inc. transmitted 70 million text messages, and Globe Telecom, the other main SMS operator, handled 45 million messages each day as opposed to its normal daily average of 24.7 million (Bagalawis 2001). The demonstrators were using text messages so actively that they seriously strained the networks covering Edsa. According to Smart’s public affairs officer, ‘The sudden increase in the volume of messages being handled at that time was so tremendous that sometimes the signals were not coming through, especially in the Edsa area.’ High-level representatives from Globe admitted similar difficulty, saying that mobile cell sites had to be transferred from the Senate and rural Bicol to ease equipment load, alleviate congestion, and provide back-up contingency (Bagalawis 2001).
Most English-language Filipino media regard the overthrow of Estrada as a positive development in the country’s democratic life. Comparing People Power II with the People Power movement of 1986, they argue that there was less violence and military involvement (Andrade-Jimenez 2001); that the demonstration was more centred on information and IT. ‘[T]he wired and wireless media became effective messengers of information – be it jokes, rumors, petitions, angry e-mails or factoids – that made People Power II much wider in scope and broader in reach than its predecessor’ (Bagalawis 2001). Moreover, the speed of IT-based mobilisation was much faster. Whereas Marcos managed to continue his rule for almost two decades despite serious allegations of corruption and human rights violations, Estrada was ousted after only two and a half years, less than half the six-year presidential term (Andrade-Jimenez 2001; Pabico n.d.).
For these reasons, Helen Andrade-Jimenez claimed that ‘People Power II showed the power of the internet and mobile communications technology – not to mention broadcast media – not only to shape public opinion but also to mobilize civil society when push came to a shove’ (Andrade-Jimenez 2001). According to these accounts, the victory of People Power II was the victory of new technologies, especially the mobile phone and the internet. These media accounts, however, need to be treated with caution. After all, ‘[n]early all the accounts of People Power II available to us come from middle-class writers or by way of a middle-class controlled media with strong nationalist sentiments’ (Rafael 2003: 401). Written in the immediate aftermath of the protests, most accounts are excessively celebratory, glossing over many issues important to our understanding of the role of the mobile phone in this political movement.
First, characterising People Power II as non-violent and information-centred is to oversimplify it. The military was never a non-factor in the process. It was only after the armed forces sided with the protestors that Estrada retreated and was ‘escorted’ out of his presidential palace by military commanders. Moreover, the deadly synchronised explosions that killed 22 Manila residents and injured more than 120 took place only 17 days before People Power II. Given the sensitive timing in the middle of the impeachment trial, such a violent incident clearly threatened everyone – especially senator-judges – with an all-out civil war on top of the ongoing clashes with the Muslim rebels accused of perpetrating the 30 December bombing. Such a civil war was quite possible because, despite the corruption charges, Estrada had overwhelming support in the countryside and among the poor, as shown in his landslide victory in the 1998 election. In fact, in a seldom-told story on 25 April 2001, three months after People Power II, Estrada was formally arrested on charges of graft and corruption, soon after which ‘a crowd of perhaps one hundred thousand formed at Edsa and demanded Estrada’s release and reinstatement’ (Rafael 2003: 422). According to Vicente Rafael (2003: 422):
Unlike those who had gathered there during People Power II, the crowd in what came to be billed as the ‘Poor People Power’ was trucked in by Estrada’s political operatives from the slums and nearby provinces and provided with money, food, and, on at least certain occasions, alcohol. In place of cell phones, many reportedly were armed with slingshots, homemade guns, knives, and steel pipes. English-language news reports described this crowd as unruly and uncivilized and castigated protestors for strewing garbage on the Edsa Shrine, harassing reporters, and publicly urinating near the giant statue of the Virgin Mary of Edsa.
Besides showing the potential for of large-scale violence during the impeachment trial, Poor People Power calls into question the proclaimed importance of new media because, although most poor demonstrators did not have cell phones (let alone internet access), this particular crowd was also able to gather in virtually no time. They had to be ‘trucked in’ since, unlike the middle-class protestors, they had no other means of transportation (see above quotation from Uy-Tioco for the usage of private cars in People Power II). Meanwhile, as Rafael (2003: 422–3) points out, the negative descriptions of the Poor People Power in part reflected the class positioning of Filipino English-language newspapers:
Other accounts qualified these depictions by pointing out that many in the crowd [of Poor People Power] were not merely hired thugs or demented loyalists [of Estrada] but poor people who had legitimate complaints. They had been largely ignored by the elite politicians, the Catholic Church hierarchy, the middle-class-dominated left-wing groups, and the NGOs. Even though Estrada manipulated them, the protestors saw their ex-president as a patron who had given them hope by way of occasional handouts and who addressed them in their vernacular. … Generation Txt spoke of democratization, accountability, and civil society; the ‘tsingelas crowd,’ so called because of the cheap rubber slippers many protestors wore, was fixated on its ‘idol,’ Estrada.
Poor People Power was finally dispersed by the military after five days (Rafael 2003: 425). This incident, seldom incorporated in the narrative of People Power II, shows the oversimplifying nature of the ‘People Power’ label with respect to the deep-seated class problems in the Philippines that offer more fundamental explanations for the social unrest described above and beyond the over-celebrated power of the new media in and of themselves. Almost 40 per cent of Filipinos live on a daily income of one US dollar (Bociurkiw 2001). Of the country’s total population of 80 million (National Statistical Coordination Board URL), only about 13.8 per cent had access to mobile phones in 2001. The scope of the cell phone’s political influence was therefore still quite limited. Although some members of the lower classes also took part in People Power II, they were, like the ‘tsingelas crowd’, presumed to be ‘voiceless’ in the ‘telecommunicative fantasies’ about the cell phone (Rafael 2003: 400).
The contradiction of class interests was most acutely presented in a book titled Power Grab (Arillo 2003), whose summary was prominently featured on Estrada’s official website. It maintains that:
[Estrada] lost his job when white-collar mobsters and plunderers, backed by seditious communists, do-gooder prelates, traditional politicians, and misguided police and military generals, banded together and toppled his regime, first, by using massive disinformation and black propaganda carefully crafted to provide half-true, misleading, or wholly false information to deceive and anger the public.
Quite apart fom the highly partisan language, this pro-Estrada writer obviously agrees that communication technologies played a pivotal role, though not to inform and mobilise in a positive sense but to disseminate ‘disinformation’, ‘to deceive and anger the public’, and to ‘misguide’ police and generals. The question that emerges is: given that Estrada was the sitting president, why he did not prevent the ‘disinformation’ and vicious mobilisation against himself? Did he think the new technology was invincible since ‘one could imagine each user becoming his or her own broadcasting station: a node in a wider network of communication that the state could not possibly monitor, much less control’? (Rafael 2003: 403). More likely, as Rafael (2003: 403) argues, the new technologies, especially the cell phone, were powerful because there was a need for ‘the power to overcome the crowded conditions and congested surroundings brought about by state’s inability to order everyday life’. In other words, the existence of a relatively weak state was a condition for the key role of the mobile phone and the internet in this case. The outcome might have been very different had there been stronger state control. Although there were some indications that Estrada was attempting to acquire the technology to monitor cell phone use, ‘[i]t is doubtful, however, that cell phone surveillance technology was available to the Estrada administration’ (Rafael 2003: 403). Besides problems in technologies, this probably reflected Estrada’s life first as a successful film star (making him overconfident about the image that film, TV, and radio had created of him), then as a long-time, small-town politician (making him unprepared for the power of the new communications media in Manila) (Pabico n.d.).
It should also to be pointed out that other social forces were playing critical roles, especially the Catholic Church and the radio and other media under its influence. A Catholic nun was among the first to openly accuse Estrada’s family of mishandling public funds (Uy-Tioco 2003: 9). Cardinal Sin, the head of Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines, had been among the most prominent anti-Estrada leaders since the beginning of the impeachment in October 2000 (BBC News 2000; see also Gaspar 2001). Moreover, while many were suspicious of the credibility of SMS messages because so many of them consisted of ungrounded rumours, religious organisations were deliberately involved to add legitimacy to anti-Estrada text messages. As one activist reveals in a listserv post:
I was certain [texting] would not be taken seriously unless it was backed up by some kind of authority figure to give it some sort of legitimacy. A priest who was with us suggested that Radio Veritas [the church-owned broadcasting station] should get involved in disseminating the particulars … We [then] formulated a test message … and sent it out that night and I turned off my phone … By the time I turned it on in the morning, the message had come back to me three times. … I am now a firm believer in the power of the text! (quoted in Rafael 2003: 408)
As mentioned earlier, mobile phones also worked closely with hundreds of anti-Estrada web sites and listservs during the movement. In addition to famous online forums such as E-Lagda.com, blogging sites were also involved, such as ‘The Secret Diary of Erap Estrada (erap.blogspot.com)’ (Andrade-Jimenez 2001). It is thus erroneous to give all the credit to texting, since mobile phones had to function in this particular media environment, which reflected the middle-class-dominated power structure at the time. It is within this larger framework that we should acknowledge that the mobile phone – as a medium that is portable, personal, and prepared to receive and deliver messages anytime, anywhere – can perform a mobilisation function much more efficiently than other communication channels at the tipping point of an emerging political movement.
On the other hand, as a tool of political communication texting has a serious limitation: it allows short messages to be copied and distributed quickly and widely, but it permits very little editing or elaboration based on the original message. It is suited for simple coordinating messages such as specifying the time and location of a gathering and what to wear (black clothes, in this case). However, it is highly insufficient for civic deliberation. With SMS, the messages were ‘mechanically augmented but semantically unaltered … producing a “technological revolution” that sets the question of social revolution aside’ (Rafael 2002: 409–10). ‘Texting is thus “revolutionary” in a reformist sense’ (Rafael 2003: 410). If a real revolution were to take place that fundamentally altered a social structure, it would most likely involve other media, including not only the internet, which has been accompanying the cell phone in most political mobilisations, but also traditional mass media and interpersonal communication.
Finally, there was a global dimension to People Power II. New media technologies, especially the internet, enabled the global Filipino diaspora to participate more easily (Andrade-Jimenez 2001). Since overseas Filipinos are more sympathetic toward middle-class appeals, they added significantly to the oppositional force. Moreover, Estrada has been an outspoken nationalist for most of his political life. He was named the Most Outstanding Mayor and Foremost Nationalist in 1972 (Alfredson and Vigilar 2001). In 1991, he was the first senator to propose the termination of American military base in the Philippines. He therefore had little support from global capital or the US government, which would rather watch him being replaced by Gloria Arroyo, who was more westernised and represented middle-class interests.
To sum up, during People Power II the mobile phone, and especially text messaging, did play a major role in message dissemination, political mobilisation, and the coordination of campaign logistics. Because it allows instant communication at any time, anywhere, it is most suited to assembling large-scale demonstrations immediately after emergent political events such as the senators’ decision on the impeachment trial on 16 January 2001, or events during the Korean presidential election of 2002. However, the social influence of the mobile phone was limited by the digital divide. It is often a tool serving the interests of the middle class, traditional stakeholders (such as the Catholic Church), and global capital. It does not always have high credibility or sufficient capacity to spur two-way civic deliberation. For these reasons, mobile phones and texting have to work closely with other media, such as the internet and radio as shown in this case, in order to lead to actual political consequences at the national level.
Wireless communication and the ‘people who love Roh’ in South Korea
On 19 December 2002, South Korea elected its new president, Roh Moo-Hyun, a major part of whose victory has been widely attributed to Nosamo, an online supporter group known by this Korean acronym of ‘People who Love Roh’. The success of Roh and of Nosamo is now ‘a textbook example for the power of IT’ (Hachigian and Wu 2003: 68), which systematically utilised a combination of the internet and mobile phone-based communication While the internet-based campaign had lasted for years, providing the core political networks, it was the mobile phones that mobilised large number of young voters on the election day and finally reversed the voting result (Fulford 2003; see also S.-D. Kim n.d.; Rhee 2003).
Nosamo is not a random phenomenon. It is rather a strategic coalition of liberal pro-reform political forces and new communication technologies that came together in response to pressing issues such as economic growth and the problem of regionalism. Based on the nation’s high internet and mobile phone penetration rates, it also draws on the pro-democracy student demonstrations of the 1980s (Fairclough 2004; see also J.-M. Kim 2001: 49). This is a very sensible strategy given that the traditional media, especially newspapers, are predominantly conservative (S.-D. Kim n.d.). These ‘old’ media had little appeal to young people in their twenties and thirties; yet this age group is a baby-boom generation that makes up slightly more than half the total number of voters (J.-M. Kim 2001).
Roh Moo-Hyun, a self-educated labour lawyer, assumed the presidency at the rather young age of 56. He differed from most other politicians in having a more radical reformist agenda that on the one hand, favoured a fundamental overhaul of the chaebols, the family-dominated conglomerates that ‘have long funded the country’s political machinery’ (Fairclough 2004), and on the other hand attempted to transcend the boundaries of regionalism, a deep-rooted structural problem in Korean politics (Rhee (2003: 95). In addition to these particular political stances, Roh was also known for his highly idealistic personality because, despite repeatedly failing to win elections (as mayor of Pusan and then as a member of the national assembly), he refused to compromise or switch parties as many other opposition figures did. This iconoclastic image won him ‘an almost cult-like following among young Koreans’ (Demick 2003).
To reach this critical cohort of voters, Roh experimented with online campaigns back in 1995 when he was running for election as mayor of Pusan. It ‘fits in with his political philosophy of openness and direct communication with the people’. Many of his closest aides in the presidential election were former student activists (Fairclough 2004). This was a highly innovative approach, not only because it used new technology but also because it appealed to the younger generation in a more substantial way than the predominantly conservative traditional media that formed part of the Korean political machine. Consequently, young people had been feeling cynical and disenfranchised in the political process: ‘Nearly a third of the nation’s twenty-somethings didn’t bother to vote in the 1997 presidential election. Less than 40 per cent of the 8 million people in their twenties voted in parliamentary elections in April last year , far below the 57 percent national average’ (J.-M. Kim 2001: 49).
It was at this historic moment of low turnout among young people, when Roh Moo-Hyun lost his second race in the parliamentary election, that Nosamo (www.nosamo.org) came into being. On 6 June 2000 Nosamo was formed by around 100 founding members who convened in Taejon (Korea Times 2002). While Roh’s campaign team had been actively utilising the new media, Nosamo was a voluntary organisation self-funded by membership fees and only informally affiliated with Roh (Korea Times 2002; see also Rhee 2003: 95). Within five months, its membership had mushroomed: from around 100 to nearly 5,000 in November 2001 (J.-M. Kim 2001: 50), and then, within a year, to 70,000–80,000 by the end of 2002, amounting to a most formidable political force.
During the presidential election of 2002, Nosamo members raised more than US$7 million over the internet (Demick 2003). They used electronic bulletins, online polls, and text messages to formulate collective decisions and coordinate campaign activities. ‘All the decisions about their activities are made through an electronic voting system and the final decision-making online committee has its monthly meeting in chat rooms’ (J.-M. Kim 2001: 50). Among a variety of logistical tasks, one was to ensure that people wore yellow outfits when attending political rallies – yellow being the colour symbolising Roh’s campaign (Korea Times 2002).
At times, members of Nosamo could act quite aggressively. For instance, a professor made a comment perceived to be critical of Roh supporters on a television talk show. He was subject to hundreds of angry e-mails and was widely lambasted in the Nosamo forum (Demick 2003). Because of this and similar activities, Nosamo was criticised for behaving like ‘Internet Red Guards’ with ‘violent words in cyberspace and an appeal to populism’ (Demick 2003). About a month before the presidential election, South Korea’s election commission barred the group from raising money for the candidate (Demick 2003), and the organisation’s web site was forced to close until the election day (Korea Times 2002).
Meanwhile, the rather unconventional approaches of Roh Moo-Hyun continued to work to his disadvantage. Mainstream media, most of which belonged to the conservative camp, kept casting him in a negative light (Rhee 2003; S.-D Kim n.d.). A few months before the election, Roh was so far down in the opinion polls that members of his own Millennium Democratic Party (MDP) tried to force him out of the race (Demick 2003). On the eve of election, Roh’s key campaign partner, the multimillionaire Chung Mong-Joon, suddenly withdrew his support, dealing a heavy blow to the entire campaign at the last minute (Korea Times 2002).
As the day of the election dawned on 19 December 2002, Nosamo members were struck by a deep sense of crisis. With their main web site having been closed for the month preceding election eve, young activists started the day by posting online messages such as ‘Let’s go vote!’ (Rhee 2003: 96). By 11 a.m. exit polls showed that Roh was losing by a margin of 1 to 2 per cent (Fulford 2003; Rhee 2003: 96). At midday, ‘[h]is supporters hit the chat rooms to drum up support. Within minutes more than 800,000 e-mails were sent to mobile phones to urge supporters to go out and vote. Traditionally apathetic young voters surged to the polls, and by 2 p.m., Roh took the lead and went on to win the election’ (Fulford 2003).
Several elements contributed to this historic event, when mobile phones for the first time played a significant part in determining the outcome of a presidential election. First, a large-scale grass-roots political network was already centred on Nosamo, whose members not only had frequent online exchanges but also met offline. Second, Roh Moo-Hyun’s centre-left policies and iconoclastic image energised young liberals, many of whom were highly motivated and ready to act promptly at time of crisis. Third, Chung Mong-Joon’s sudden withdrawal of support on election eve and the temporary trailing of Roh created an urgent need to rally public support. And the mobile phone – the quintessential grass-roots communication gadget that is always on, ‘anywhere, anytime,’ – turned out to be the best medium for these rallying calls. Given the strength of youth networks (Yoon 2003a; 2003b) and the demographic fact that people in their twenties and thirties made up slightly more than half the total number of voters (J.-M Kim 2001: 49), young people mobilised through mobile messages became a decisive voting bloc. At the end of the day, ‘sixty percent of voters in their 20s and 30s cast ballots for Roh’ (Rhee 2003: 95).
After President Roh took office, Nosamo decided to remain active following an internal poll in January 2003 (Korea Herald 2003). Nosamo members continued to ‘solicit suggestions for appointees to Cabinet positions and engage in debates over topics ranging from North Korea’s nuclear program to whether it would be more appropriate for Roh to take up golf or jogging as president’ (Demick 2003). In fact, like any long-term civic group, they played a relatively independent watchdog role in observing, and sometimes criticising, Roh’s presidential decisions. Back in 2001, a founding member of Nosamo was quoted as saying that ‘We’re using the Net to support him. But we want to say “no” when he makes any decision which we think is wrong’ (J.-M. Kim 2001: 50). On 24 March 2003, Nosamo adopted a statement opposing the US-led war in Iraq and the decision of South Korea to dispatch engineering and medical troops there (Korea Times 2003). Yet the Roh administration proceeded with the plan, causing some Nosamo members to withdraw from the group; one of them said:
I withdrew from Nosamo because President Roh Moo-Hyun has shown us drastically different aspects since becoming president. I do not love Roh Moo-Hyun anymore. I hate the sight of the president supporting the barbaric war of the United States killing innocent civilians of Iraq (Korea Times 2003).
In spring 2004, Nosamo again played a major role in staging support for Roh during an impeachment investigation against him on charges of violating Korean laws barring partisan remarks within a period of 17 days preceding parliamentary elections (Len 2004). During this election, the liberal Uri Party, which had Roh’s support, utilised mobile phone for campaigning purposes. Along with the usual policy statements, candidate profiles, and scheduled appearances, Nosamo’s web site also encouraged supporters to copy ‘Get out and vote’ messages and send them out by mobile phone to ten friends who were then, in turn, asked to forward the message to ten of their friends (Salmon 2004).
The socio-political uses of the mobile phone are still increasing as Korean society further transforms and the technology further diffuses and becomes more mature. Again, the role of the mobile has to be understood as closely related to other media, especially online bulletin board system (BBS). These new media function most importantly as a catalyst for the mobilisation of existing youth networks, giving rise to groups, such as Nosamo, that are, in one sense, new political forces whose historical origins, however, can be traced back at least two decades. This said, it would be an exaggeration to attribute to the mobile phone some kind of magical, innate political power as the sole or even the most important media device. Yet it would be equally erroneous to ignore the unique capacity of the cellular phone – as a gadget of ‘perpetual contact’ – to promote the swift mobilisation of certain marginalised social groups at critical political moments such as the Korean presidential election of 2002.
Terrorism, political manipulation, autonomous communication, social mobilisation, and political change: Spain, March 2004
On 11 March 2004, a Madrid-based, mainly Moroccan, radical Islamic group associated with Al-Qaeda conducted in Madrid the largest terrorist attack in Europe, bombing three suburban trains, killing 199 people and wounding over 1,000. The bombing was conducted by remote-control-activated cell phones. Indeed, it was the discovery of a cell phone calling card in an unexploded bag that led to the identification of the phone and the arrest of the culprits. Al-Qaeda took responsibility for the bombing later that evening. The attack took place in a very special political context, four days before the Spanish parliamentary elections, which were dominated by the debate on the participation of Spain in the Iraq war, a policy opposed by the vast majority of Spanish citizens. Yet the conservative party, Partido Popular (PP), was considered the likely winner of the election, based on its record on economic policy and its stand on Basque terrorism. However, in the last weeks before the election the young, charismatic Socialist leader Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero waged an impressive electoral campaign, so that on 10 March 2004 opinion polls rendered the result of the election too close to call one way or another.
In this political context, as soon as the Madrid terror attack occurred, and before any evidence surfaced, the PP government stated with total conviction that ETA, the Basque terrorist group, was behind the bombing. As the hours went by, it became increasingly likely that Al-Qaeda was the culprit. Yet the Minister of Interior and the government’s spokesman continued to insist that ETA was responsible, until the evening of the 13th. The government calculated that holding the Basque terrorists responsible would favour the PP in the elections, while acknowledging that Islamic terrorists were probably responsible would indicate to Spaniards the high price they were paying for their government’s policy in Iraq, thus potentially inciting them to vote against the government. In the minds of millions of Spaniards (actually 67 per cent of them) the government was manipulating information about the attack, seeking political advantage. This widespread feeling was an important factor in the unexpected political defeat of the PP on 14 March, leading to the election of a Socialist government and to the immediate withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq.
Thus, oppositional views on the actual source of terror had to find alternative channels of communication to be heard. The use of these alternative communication channels led to mobilisations against the PP on Saturday 13 March, a ‘day of reflection’ when, under Spanish law, political demonstrations and public statements are forbidden. Yet the actions of thousands of protestors, most of them youths, made an impact on public opinion, and particularly on the two million new voters, young people who usually have a higher abstention rate or vote for minority parties rather than for Socialists or Conservatives. In this election there were 2.5 million voters more than in the 2000 parliamentary election, and about 1 million voters switched to the Socialists, seeking to punish the government both for its policy on Iraq and for its perceived manipulation of information. The Socialist Party won a clear majority in an election that saw a 77 per cent turnout. This discussion, on the basis of published reports, explores the process through which alternative communications channels were created and used efficiently.
The process of alternative communication started with the outpouring of emotion that surrounded the street demonstrations on Friday 12 March, called by the government with the support of all political forces. This is important: it was in the physical gathering that people first started to react and to oppose the official version of the facts, independently of political parties that remained silent for the occasion. While the demonstration was called against terrorism and in support of the constitution (an oblique reference to Basque separatism), many of the participants were displaying banners opposing the war in Iraq. The demonstration was intended to mark the end of political statements, leading to the day of reflection on Saturday and to the election on Sunday. Yet on Saturday morning a number of activists, mostly individuals without any current political affiliations, and independently of the mainstream parties, started to circulate text messages to the addresses programmed in their cell phones. In the messages they denounced the manipulation of information and called for a demonstration at 6 p.m. in front of the headquarters of the PP in Madrid and then in other Spanish cities. This was in fact outlawed, and naturally did not receive any support, explicit or implicit, from any party, although some of the participants in these gatherings were members of left-wing parties, particularly of the United Left (a small party in parliament that includes the remnants of the Communist Party in Spain). But most of the activists were participants in the anti-war movement, and most of the people gathering in front of the PP headquarters were simply those reached by the network of SMSs. The earliest and most famous of these messages, all fitting within the 160 characters frame of the SMS format, was the following:
‘Aznar off the hook? ¿They call it day of reflection and Urdaci works? Today, 13M, 18h. PP headquarters, Genova street, 13. No parties. Silent for truth. Forward it! (‘Pasalo!’).
The reference to Urdaci must be explained: he was the notorious anchorman of Spanish National TV, well known for his manipulation of political news (in fact, sentenced for such by the court). In the meantime, Spanish National TV continued to defend the story of Basque terrorism, and in the evening before the election changed its regular programming to broadcast a documentary film on the assassination of a Socialist politician by Basque terrorists.
On Saturday SMS traffic increased by 40 per cent over a regular Saturday, reaching a higher volume than on a regular Monday, an all-time record for these messages. The critical point is that, while most messages were very similar, the sender for each receiver was someone known, someone who had the receiver’s address in his or her cell phone’s address book. Thus, the network of diffusion was at the same time increasing at an exponential rate but without losing the proximity of the source, according to the well-known ‘small world’ phenomenon.
The internet started earlier to become an alternative channel of communication, on 11 March particularly, but also on the 12th. On the one hand, people used the internet to look for other sources of information, particularly from abroad. But there were also a number of initiatives, including some by journalists acting on their own, to set up a web site with information and debates from various sources.
Interestingly enough, the PP started an SMS network with a different message: ‘ETA are the authors of the massacre. Pasalo!’ But it diffused mainly through party channels, did not reach a critical mass of known person to known person, and, more importantly, was not credible for the thousands of people who were already doubting the government’s word.
The context provided by the mainstream media was also meaningful. Major television networks were very soon ignored as unreliable sources of information. Through their hesitancy newspapers made themselves unreliable, although La Vanguardia in Barcelona, printed in its front page on Saturday an article supporting the claim that Al-Qaeda was responsible for the attack. On the other hand, SER, the major private radio network, on the initiative of its journalists, immediately looked for evidence elsewhere than on the Basque trail. Sometimes it did so too eagerly, as it diffused some inaccurate information; yet most of its reports proved to be accurate. As a result, many people treated their radios (including their portable radios) as their source of information, and then interacted with SMS and cell phones calls. People used voice communication for direct discussion with close friends, and SMS for diffusing personally crafted messages or for forwarding received messages that they agreed with.
Thus, the context of communication was provided by the physical gathering in the streets, at the beginning of the formation of public opinion, and as a result of the process of political communication: the congregation in front of the PP buildings was the proof of the usefulness of the message. Then the street action attracted the attention of some radio and TV networks (regional television and CNN-Spain) and ultimately, on Saturday at 20.20 p.m., forced the Minister of Interior to appear on national TV acknowledging Al Qaeda’s possible role. Yet later on the leading candidate of the PP also appeared on national TV denouncing the demonstrators – so unwittingly fuelling the crisis of trust that they had induced. Thus, an error of political communication amplified the effect of the demonstrations.
The internet was important as a source of information and a forum of debate in the days preceding the demonstrations. But the critical events were the demonstrations of Saturday 13 March, typical flash mob phenomena prompted by a massive network of SMSs that increased the effect of communication exponentially through interpersonal channels. They happened first in Madrid, but diffused to Barcelona and ultimately to all Spanish cities because, naturally, address books in cell phones include friends and acquaintances in other cities.
This experience in Spain, coming three years after the flash mob mobilisation that forced the resignation of Estrada in the Philippines, will remain a turning point in the history of political communication. Armed with their cell phones, and connected to the World Wide Web, individuals and grass-roots activists are able to set up powerful, broad, personalised, instant networks of communication. Whatever the merits of this phenomenon (as it is subject, of course, to the diffusion of harmful, misleading information), this form of autonomous communication rings a warning bell about the control of information by governments and mainstream media.
The Mobilisation around the Republican National Convention in New York
The Republican Party held its 2004 National Convention (RNC) from 30 August to 2 September amid heightened expectations of disturbances caused by anti-Bush activists. The run-up to the New York convention was characterised by reports and rumours of planned and potentially spontaneous protests and of how the police and security agencies were preparing to deal with these incidents (Carpenter 2004; Gibbs 2004; Shachtman 2004; Terdiman 2004). Comparisons were made to the battle of Seattle in 1999, when over 40,000 protesters descended on the city from all over the world to protest against the policies of the World Trade Organization (WTO), leading to scenes of violence and contributing to the breakdown of the WTO talks. What was particularly interesting about these reports was that the central role of wireless communication was taken for granted, not just in the protests but in all aspects of the convention. In the event, several (mostly non-violent) protests were indeed coordinated primarily via wireless communication and the internet, leading to over 17,000 arrests. The convention itself was hardly affected by the protests apart from a few minor disruptions. In fact, President Bush experienced a bounce of two percentage points in the polls (among likely voters) after the convention (The Economist 2004; Jones 2004). These events occurred too recently for any judgements to be made about their immediate or long-term impact. Preliminary examination, however, indicates that this was a case where the use of wireless communication technologies served to enhance efficiency but not to effect change.
Wireless communication, especially text messages, featured prominently as a means of coordinating the activities of protesters and sending out alerts about ongoing activities, such as spontaneous gatherings or police arrests, at least from the perspective of news coverage of the protests. For example, text messages were used to call a spontaneous rally on 1 September at the pier where arrested protesters were being held by the police (Simon 2004). Other people used text messages to decide which protests they would attend, or to avoid ‘hot spots’ where police brutality was taking place. Especially prominent were warning messages about where police were located and whether they were arresting protesters (see Box 8.1).
The pre-conference hype about protest activities was to some extent accurate, but also exaggerated the potential for wireless communication to cause any major upsets at the conference. For the most part, the protests were widespread but not revolutionary. This happened for a number of reasons. First, the use of wireless communication as a protest tool had been so widely anticipated that it was incorporated into the strategies of the security forces. For one thing, security detail used wireless monitoring techniques themselves, such as head-mounted miniature video cameras that transmitted footage from the security personnel’s location to a mobile command centre (Reardon 2004). Security personnel also allegedly infiltrated protesters planning meetings and monitored text messaging and other communication services used by activists (Gibbs 2004; Gibson 2004). For example, during the convention protesters using indymedia’s web site to transmit messages soon realised that the ‘police were on to them’. Thereafter, ‘calls for “direct action” stayed posted only for a couple of minutes and used code words for location’ (Becker and Port 2004).
Second, and linked to the above point, unlike some radical protests which were generated spontaneously, such as those discussed in our other three case studies, a high level of central management was associated with wireless use in the RNC context. Most of the protests and protest strategies were carefully planned, some as much as a year in advance (Archibold 2003). In addition, protest groups had to obtain a permit to demonstrate, of which eventually 29 were granted (Archibold 2004). The locations and routes of protests were mapped out in detail (Slackman 2004), and each protest was closely monitored by the police. Generally those who tried to implement protests without a permit ended up being arrested for unlawful assembly, and their numbers were never large enough to change the tone of the protest environment. Although thousands of demonstrators gathered at Central Park after the 29 August march, in defiance of a court decision not to allow protests in that area, there is no indication that this gathering had any effect on the progress of the convention.
Another example of central management was the use of specially tailored text messaging systems such as Ruckus, TxtMob (probably the most popular service used at the RNC), which was specifically designed by the Institute for Applied Autonomy for use by activists to broadcast messages during the Democratic and Republican conventions, or MoPort, which allowed individuals to ‘mobblog’ by sending pictures of the protests from their mobile devices to be downloaded onto the internet. The objective of MoPort was ‘to join the disparate streams into a collective reporting effort’ (Dayal 2004). It is possible that there was a need for such centrally organised services because of the lack of a common standard to allow people to send text messages to people on different phone networks. While these types of services effectively brought together communities of like-minded people for the purpose of activism, they lacked the character of direct person-to-person texting based on interpersonal relationships, because users have to sign up to send or receive messages through the service provider’s server. Incidentally, for a period during the convention, users of TxtMob had problems receiving messages, for which the service provider gave no explanation, leading to conspiracy theories that some cell phone companies (T-Mobile and Sprint) had deliberately blocked messages. The current explanation is that this may have been the work of a spam filter that tagged messages going out from the same server to more than 100 people as spam (Di Justo 2004; Lebkowsky 2004). The blackout effectively shut down a flash mob organised by A31 Action coalition, partly because potential participants did not know where the starting point was, although it is not clear why other forms of communication such as mobile phone calls could not have served as effective substitutes. This illustrates the limitations of communications technology, especially centralised systems.
The energy of protests was also affected by the fact that they involved several groups with different agendas, from anti-war to animal rights to abortion rights. Admittedly, the convergence of all these groups in one place against a central political institution would be a formidable force. At the same time, the single-mindedness associated with other protests that have effected immediate change was absent from these demonstrations. This can also be linked to the apparent absence of measurable goals. With the election too far away for them to galvanise action to vote against President Bush, and no chance of overturning the Republican Party’s nomination of Bush as its candidate for 2004, protesters marched with such goals as:
‘to regain the integrity of our country. … to regain our moral authority. … to extend the ban on assault weapons. … for more police on our streets. … for more port security. … for a plan to get out of Iraq’ (Jackson 2004) or
‘we want to take charge and reach the right people and influence them to go on and spread the message that this is a corrupt government’ (protester quoted by CNN 2004).
It seems, then, that so far the use of wireless communication has not had any significant effect on political events in the United States, at least on the surface. Yet social undercurrents may develop and change people’s minds and influence their political behaviour. Indeed, in so far as the protesters’ objective was to peacefully make their voice heard during a central political event while avoiding clashes with the police, one can say that the protests were successful. However, we do not have evidence to claim they had any direct impact on the political process itself.
Mobile Communication Without Social Mobilisation: Japan and China
There are other cases where wireless communication was not used for social mobilisation, such as in Japan, or where initial political developments were crushed by the state, such as in China. While our discussion of these two additional cases is less detailed, due to the lack of studies of them, they do demonstrate that, in line with our earlier claim, the particular usage of wireless technologies is shaped by the social context and political structures of a given society.
In Japan, despite the very high penetration of mobile phone and mobile internet services, so far we have not identified any instances of grass-roots socio-political mobilisation that utilised wireless communication, despite several months of literature search among academic and journalistic sources. The Japanese authorities did make some effort to use mobile technologies as a broadcasting system of some sort: for example, the ‘Lion Heart’ e-newsletter from the office of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, which had 1.7 million subscribers through personal computers and mobile phones by March 2004 (PR Newswire 2004; Reuters 2001). At the local level city governments, such as that of Sagamihara in Kanagawa Prefecture, in the southern part of Tokyo, also launched an m-government experiment in April 2004 that allowed users to report damage or defects they found in streets and public signs by sending pictures from their camera phones (Suzuki 2004). These are, however, state initiatives that operate top-down rather than examples of socio-political mobilisation that starts within the networks of ordinary mobile-equipped citizens and their organisations, as in the other cases we have discussed. The lack of grass-roots political usage among Japanese mobile subscribers is an interesting issue and remains to be explored, although at this initial stage we suspect it has to do with the ultra-consumerist tendency of Japan’s mobile culture and the relative inactivity of alternative political forces outside the mainstream in general, which is a result of the wider social and cultural framework of Japanese politics that goes way beyond the mobile culture per se.
China is a more extreme case given its authoritarian political system, which is fundamentally at odds with spontaneous grass-roots mobilisation. Hence, despite fast growth in the mobile phone market, the new technologies have so far seldom been put to socio-political uses. And, as in Japan, those few instances have been state-sponsored experiments. For example, during the National People’s Congress in March 2002, Xinhua News Agency teamed up with China Mobile to offer the public a chance to text-message their concerns and proposals to the country’s lawmakers (Zhao forthcoming). Yet there was little indication of the trial’s level of success, particularly due to the very limited content capacity of SMS. It may be unrealistic for text messages to convey anything more than a quick request or a short complaint, not to mention any deliberation in the full sense.
Meanwhile the Chinese authorities have been seeking to limit the use of new communication technologies, including wireless technologies, by political dissidents. The Telecom Ordinance of 2000 outlawed the transmission of harmful information via any telecom facilities (Fries 2000: 43–4). Later widely known for its influence on the establishment of China’s internet censorship regime, this measure was initially designed, in large part, to counter the subversive potential of pagers at the time of its initial promulgation in the mid-1990s. Meanwhile, it provided the legal basis for further, more specific, controls over the mobile phone and SMS.
Although the Chinese authorities are stepping up their regulatory efforts, some elements of Chinese society have nonetheless started to use pagers and cell phones for alternative or even oppositional political organisation. Despite the lack of systematic examination, it is likely that three social groups may have used wireless technologies to further their political ends. First is the Falungong group that Beijing denounces as an ‘evil cult’. Second, there have been constant demonstrations by laid-off urbanites or pensioners, such as the massive protests of workers in the petroleum and machinery industries in north-east China in 2002 (Associated Press 2002). Third, in the countryside there have also been protests against the misconduct and corruption of local officials (Duffy and Zhao 2004). Some members of these movements, especially the organisers, may have used wireless technologies (especially the low-end applications such as prepaid phone cards and Little Smart) for small-scale coordination. However, this technical adoption is yet to have any significant impact upon the existing power balance, because so far all these perceived challenges to the state have been kept under control at the national level despite sporadic outbursts in certain localities.
On the basis of her observations, Yuezhi Zhao (forthcoming: 18–19) concluded that, whereas there are some small-scale ICT-facilitated urban movements in China, it is unlikely that they will be connected with the country’s 800 million peasants . Moreover, due to the privileged positions of the information-haves, those who have access to the new technologies are ‘not necessarily the ones most ready to act upon this critical information’ (forthcoming: 20).
Finally, the SARS outbreak of 2003 serves as another indication of the very limited nature of the socio-political uses of mobile phones in general and SMS messages in particular. At the very beginning, no news media or internet outlets reported the epidemic. But victims and their friends and families, especially those who worked in local hospitals of Guangdong, started to text-message people they know about this strange, deadly disease. The SMS alerts spread quickly among urban residents in Guangdong and then outside the province to reach the rest of the country. But at this time public hygiene and propaganda authorities in Beijing decided to expel this ‘rumour’ by launching a mass media campaign claiming that the infections were no more than a variant of pneumonia, that it was already under control, and that the public panic partially induced by text messages was groundless. This official campaign via traditional media effectively undermined earlier information disseminated via mobile phones, because SMS was perceived to be a medium of lower credibility and there was no other source of information. As a result, most people, including experienced foreign analysts living in south China, chose to believe the official version – to witness a few weeks later the horror of SARS in full swing. Given that the power of the mobile phone was so inadequate for the sustenance of a non-state information system, even about a life-and-death issue of such immediate concern, it would be much more difficult for the new technologies to be applied to other autonomous socio-political uses with any significant consequences, at least in the short run.
Conclusion: Civil society in the new technological context: the building of autonomy though communication networks
The above cases illustrate the diverse outcomes that the use of communication technologies can mediate. In three of the cases (the Philippines, Korea and Spain) the outcome was substantial in so far as it affected the choice of a government. The fourth process we examined (in the United States) had a limited impact on US politics, and hardly affected the results of the November 2004 presidential election. In the Philippines, wireless communication was employed to oust a sitting president before his term of office ended; in South Korea, the same technologies were used to change the fortunes of a presidential contender who was trailing in the polls. In Spain, text messaging not only was used to galvanise people to vote a government out of power but was also used extensively to supplant, supplement and debunk government propaganda and mainstream media. In the United States text messaging and other wireless technologies were employed (by protesters and police) as efficient tools to coordinate and monitor protest activities during a political convention. Finally, in Japan and China socio-political usage of mobile phones is minimal,despite the rapid diffusion of communications technology in these two countries.
A critical difference between the United States and the other three examples is that, whereas in the Philippines, Korea and Spain a combination of factors converged to stimulate spontaneous uprisings, in the United States the process was more centrally managed, thus removing, to some extent, the element of interpersonal communication based on friendship networks. Significantly, there were no surprises in the US case; everyone had anticipated how wireless communication would likely be used. Conversely, in the other cases events were less charted and less predictable, and there were no effective countermeasures.
As we have already noted in the various case studies, in order not to be deterministic about the impact of new communications technologies we should recognise that other communication processes and media, both wired and unwired, were also important in these processes. We certainly know that revolutionary political mobilisations have occurred in countries where wireless communication is lacking. When wireless communication has had some political impetus, some or all of these other processes have been in play, including a precipitating event strong enough to arouse anger or other emotions, activist instigators, support from respected institutions such as the Church, and supplementary information from mainstream media and/or internet sources. In addition, people involved feel that they really can bring about change and tend to have a focused goal, which can sometimes be directly implemented through the voting process.
We have also noted that communication is a double-edged sword. Speed of information flow through interpersonal networks that has the ability to move people to act can as easily be used to spread rumours or inaccurate information as to spread hidden truths. Also, in so far as there is some differentiation in the diffusion and usage patterns of wireless communication technologies among countries, as well as on the basis of age, gender and socio-economic status, the process of political mobilisation using this means could be limited to certain privileged groups.
Still, based on these case studies, it cannot be denied that access to and use of wireless communications technology adds a beneficial tool to the arsenal of those who seek to influence politics and the political process outside formal channels. Arguably, other media such as wired phones, radio or TV could perform the same rallying function as wireless methods, but not in as timely a manner, not with the ability to reach people wherever they are, and not free of the production constraints associated with traditional media. Wireless communications methods and applications such as cell phones and text messaging, then, do not replace but add to, and even change, the media ecology, expanding the information networks available to individuals to include the interpersonal level. The shape of civil society, both local and global, is being transformed by new forms of communication that increase people’s autonomy to retrieve their own sources of information and to develop their own communication channels. Throughout history, information has always been power, and communication the foundation of counter-power. Therefore, the technology of information and communication is a fundamental dimension of civil society in our time.
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