Mobile Phones and Social Activism: Why Cell Phones May Be the Most Important Technical Innovation

Ethan Zuckerman

      In this brief piece, Ethan Zuckerman, a Fellow affiliated with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law Schools in the United States, traces some trends in the use of the mobile phone around the world as an "activist technology". His core thesis is that mobiles are powerful because they're "pervasive, personal, and capable of authoring content."

According to Zuckerman, the reasons behind this trend are clear. Mobile phone penetration "vastly exceeds internet usage", he indicates. For example, in China in 2005, there were 350 million mobile phone users, and 100 million internet users. Zuckerman indicates that there are over 2 billion mobile phone users in the world today, heading towards 3.3 billion in 2010. He indicates that the parts of the world where mobile use is growing the most quickly - the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia - are markets where the mobile is not a replacement for existing landline technology; rather, it is allowing people to have a personal communications channel for the first time. The author cites a figure indicating that 97% of people in Tanzania have reported they could access to a mobile phone (their own, a friend's, or one they could rent) as compared to 28% who could access a landline. One explanation for the spike in use of this technology is that users in rural areas of "the South" can share a mobile phone with other residents of a village.

Zuckerman suggests that "[t]he only technology that compares to the mobile phone in terms of pervasiveness and accessibility in the developing world is the radio. Indeed, considered together, radios and mobile phones can serve as a broad-distribution, participatory media network with some of the same citizen-media dynamics of the Internet, but accessible to a much wider, and non-literate audience." He cites Interactive Radio for Justice, a participatory radio show in the Ituri region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DMC) which uses short message service (SMS) to enable listeners to ask questions about justice and human rights to a panel of Congolese and United Nations (UN) officials, who answer the questions over the air. As Zuckerman explains it, the producers ask callers not to identify themselves for fear that some pointed questions may lead to retribution.

As suggested by this example, "the anonymity of mobile phones is one of the key reasons they've been so useful to activists", since mobile phones in most developing nations are sold on a pay-as-you-go basis. Zuckerman indicates that some countries require registration of a phone's Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) card (click here for a Wikipedia explanation of SIM), using a validated ID, but most do not. Thus, he explains, "it's not difficult for an activist to have a single phone with multiple SIMs, one which is closely correlated with her identity and one which might be used to send messages to organize a protest or promote a cause."

"In smart-mob scenarios, mobile phones function as an impromptu broadcast network" in that they provide a means for sharing information about rallies. Zuckerman claims that activists drawn together to demonstrations by text messages transmitted by cell phone have spurred political change. The examples he cites indicate a role for the use of this technology to protect citizens' rights and to foster democracy and governance through local participation and action. For instance, in 2001, "SMS messages about political corruption helped turn the tide against Joseph Estrada, and led to SMS-organized street protests and Estrada's eventual ouster. (Filipino activists have organized subsequent text-based protests, many focused on lobbying for mobile phone user's rights...) SMS messages in Ukraine helped mobilize tens of thousands of young demonstrators in the streets of Kiev in late 2004 to protest election fraud and demand a revote. In both cases, calls to take to the streets spread organically - virally - with recipients forwarding the messages to multiple friends."

Other activist uses of mobiles take advantage of the ability of mobile owners to create content as well as forwarding it, according to Zuckerman. For instance, activists with the pro-democracy Kefaya movement use mobile phones and their cameras to document demonstrations and other news events. They call, text, or use Multimedia Messaging Service, or MMS (click here for a Wikipedia explanation of MMS) to send messages to the administrator of the Kefaya blog. Even the creation of ringtones can have an effect, Zuckerman says. Protests organised by SMS apparently "helped unseat Joseph Estrada in the Philippines and bring President Gloria Arroyo to power. When Arroyo found herself embroiled in a corruption scandal involving tape recordings of phone calls to voting commissioner Virgilio Garcillano, one of the tools activists used to spread information was a ringtone. The ringtone featured a snippet of dialog between Arroyo and Garcillano and rapidly became one of the world's most downloaded ringtones and spawning over a dozen remixed versions."

Zuckerman explores some of the attempts that governments have made to stop virally spreading messages by ordering SMS networks to be shut down. The examples he cites are drawn from recent episodes in Albania, Belarus, Ethiopia, Iran, and Cambodia (where, according to the author, the government - concerned about political text messages - shut off SMS messaging for 2 days prior to governing council elections, prompting accusations that the blockage was an unconstitutional limitation of speech). Reportedly, police have explored a different technique for controlling SMS-spread demonstrations. In Shanghai, for example, police have used SMS messages to warn potential protesters to stay away from anti-Japan street protests.

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) have recently been combined for use by activists, according to this article. Zuckerman notes that those with mobile phones equipped with cameras have recently become "a powerful force for 'sousveillance.' Coined by Dr. Steve Mann, 'sousveillance' refers to the monitoring of authority figures by grassroots groups, using the technologies and techniques of surveillance." He cites the use of mobile phones to monitor the 2000 presidential election in Ghana as an example, noting that voters who were prevented from voting used mobile phones to report their experience to call-in shows on local radio stations. The stations broadcast the reports, prompting police to respond to the accusations of voter intimidation. Zuckerman claims that "by making reports public through the radio, voters eliminated the possibility of police announcing that there had been no reports of voter intimidation. Similar techniques have been used in Sierra Leone, Senegal, and even in the United States." He predicts that, "[i]n a future where most citizens carry cameras with them at all times and have the ability to spread them phone to phone, or by posting them to a Web site, there's tremendous potential for sousveillance to serve as a check to people in power."

The author indicates that cell phones are increasingly becoming systems of payment as well. He describes a new system implemented by the Kenyan mobile company Safaricom called M-PESA which allows mobile phone users to send money to other users of the network: "it's likely that M-PESA will become a major tool for remittance as well as for cashless payment. Activists armed with M-PESA-type phones could do more than organize a dispersed protest - they could fundraise, making it possible for groups of activists to fund the travel of an activist to a protest or the cost of leaflets."

Read full article here

15th Nov 2007