Political Texting: SMS and Elections
By Howard Rheingold, Mon Apr 12 00:15:00 GMT 2004

Texting and electoral politics are the strange bedfellows of the 21st century. The use of SMS for political action is only in its infancy, but has already enabled citizens to topple governments and tip elections from Manila to Madrid. The electoral power of texting could be an early indicator of future social upheaval: whenever people gain the power to organize collective action on new scales, in new places, at new tempos, with groups they had not been able to organize before, societies and civilizations change.

The alphabet made empires and armies possible, the printing press made democracy and science possible; railroads and telephones, corporations and bureaucracies co-evolved. Now the fusion of the mobile telephone, the PC, and the Internet is beginning to make new forms of collective action possible on new scales, at new tempos, in new places, with groups that not been able to organize before.

When I wrote Smart Mobs in 2001, the technopolitical outbreaks I cited included the 1999 anti-WTO demonstrations in Seattle, where mobile-phone equipped protestors used swarming tactics to out-maneuver the, and the 2000 Manila "People Power II" demonstrations in that gave birth to the legend of "Generation TXT" and signaled the end of the Estrada regime. Since the book was published, however, the election of President Roh in South Korea, the emergence of the Howard Dean candidacy in the USA, the SMS-organized demonstrations in Madrid in the wake of the March 11, 2004 terrorist bombings (and on the eve of the election), are headline events. Less widely publicized but equally noteworthy as potential harbingers of a world-wide trend, elections in Kenya and Ghana were kept honest by monitors who used a network of mobile phones and radio stations; India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party uses SMS to maintain contact with the press and voters; in South Africa, SMS registration was part of the official voter registration process.

In the Philippines, a million citizens used SMS to organize street demonstrations that helped topple the Estrada regime. In South Korea, the cyber-generation, seeing their favored candidate losing in exit polls, used the collectively published "we journalism" Ohmynews site to organize a get-out-the-vote campaign involving 800,000 personal e-mails and uncounted SMS messages, turning the tide in the election's final hours. Now the self-organized cyber-savvy youth who helped elect Roh are fighting another political battle around his impeachment.

In the United States, where texting culture has lagged the rest of the world, online tools helped enthusiastic supporters turn an obscure candidate into a frontrunner, and raise unprecedented amounts of cash online through small donations: Howard Dean's presidential campaign fell apart, but that there was a campaign at all was possible only because people outside the traditional Democratic party process self-organized through blogs, Meetups, and Deanspace, an open-source toolset for self-organizing. Although the Dean campaign collapsed, Moveon.org, a website that was set up to organize petitions opposed to President Clinton's impeachment, has shown to be an effective lobbying force, mobilizing not just money but the creative media-making powers of their constituents to produce and broadcast political advocacy television spots. Now, as Douglas Rushkoff discussed in a recent article, MTV and Motorola are teaming up in the US to "Rock the Mobile Vote."

In Spain, the terrorist attacks occurred days before an election; officially, demonstrations were banned during the 24 hours prior to the election, but Spanish citizens used SMS to self-organize spontaneous demonstrations. Texting traffic was 20% higher than normal on the day before the election, and 40% higher on election day. According to the International Herald Tribune: "Francisco Ortega, a teacher in Madrid, said he had received a text message that said: "Demonstration in front of the headquarters of the PP against the lies of the government. Pass it on!""

In early 2003, David Sawe wrote this remarkable account of the Kenya elections in Democracy Online:

For the first time, we Kenyans have more or less agreed that this time we have had a fair election with the highest number of voters turning out to vote.

One key instrument has been the mobile phone.

Picture this;

1. Planning - Political strategists came up with huge databases of their supporters with cell phone numbers and let the dynamics of networking at grassroots level take effect. In other words, because of this instrument, people who had not met before could contact each other and assist wherever they could. The youth manning the polling stations could call for support incase of any hitches.

2. Campaigning - The use of sms (short messaging service) was intense and balanced for the leading presidential candidates. Kenya has more than one million mobile phones users outstripping by far fixed lines subscribers and a message to one cell phone number can reach at least 4 people.

3. Results Diseminination - As soon as votes are counted even in the remotest areas, results can easily be accessed immediately as opposed to previous elections where people had to wait for ballot boxes to be transported to key counting points and it is believed rigging used to happen during the transportation.

Don't mistake this obvious democratization of the power to organize and propagandize as an obviously beneficial boost to Democracy - like any powerful technology that amplifies collective action, mass-texting in politics has its pitfalls. Most obviously, the crowd and the mob have been manipulated by totalitarians in the 20th century, using much cruder media technologies than are available today. Less obviously, texting is an unprecedented channel for misinformation and disinformation as well as an alternate channel for routing the truth around censors (e.g., 150 million text messages outed the truth about SARS in China despite Beijing's attempts to keep a lid on the news). With an election coming up in Manila, texting-enthused masses are using it to disseminate propaganda - some of it perhaps true, some of it proven to be false. According to Reuters:

Mobiles in Manila buzz with election-related messages. Along with the jokes, mostly impenetrable to anyone without a deep knowledge of the country's politics and culture, is the occasional potential bombshell.

Angara says the LDP's vice presidential candidate, Senator Loren Legarda, was the victim of false messages saying she submitted bills to cut pay for teachers, soldiers and firefighters.

Other messages have proven stunningly accurate, such as those saying Poe had fathered a child during an affair with an actress. Confronted with the allegation, potentially damaging in this Roman Catholic country, Poe confirmed it was true.

It will take years to know whether the SMS-tipped elections in Korea, Kenya, the Philippines, and Spain are good for the citizens who used their mobile phones to influence politics. And who can doubt that some day, the demonstrations won't be democratic or peaceful? Combatants were summoned by SMS to join the riots around the Miss World pageant in Nigeria last year. Although it's not easy to predict where texting and politics will co-evolve in the future, this sudden emergence of a popular, potent, and volatile new medium for political action deserves close attention, and analysis. Without understanding, foresight is impossible.