Smart Mobs: Activists go Wireless
By Niall McKay in San Francisco, Mon May 19 15:00:00 GMT 2003

Activists are using SMS, WiFi and other wireless technologies to bring protesting into the 21 Century.

It was the day after the coalition forces invaded Iraq and about 100,000 anti-war protestors had taken to the streets in San Francisco. Helicopters buzzed overhead, sirens wailed as hundreds of police were being shunted around the city streets in commandeered public busses.

They were playing a game of cat-and-mouse with the demonstrators who used cell-phones, text messaging and a pirate radio station to keep one step ahead of the police by coordinating swarm maneuvers. Messages were sent out to roving bands of protestors who gathered at busy intersections, wrapped chains around their hands, put their arms in plastic piping, and sat on the road to stop the traffic.

Smart Swarms

Police arrived; called in the Fire service who cut the piping and the chains. They could then arrest the protesters. However, by the time the police had processed one group another five to ten intersections were occupied by new swarms of protesters.

By the end of the day over 2000 people had been arrested and the city had been brought to a standstill. The San Francisco demonstrators had not only disrupted traffic but cost the city upwards of a million dollars and gained international attention by letting people around the world (as well as in Washington) know that not everybody in the United States supported the war.

Smart Media

The techniques used in San Francisco have been noted by veteran Internet commentator Howard Rheingold. In his book Smart Mobs, the Next Social Revolution he defines it as using communication and computing technologies to amplify the human talent for cooperation. Specifically the term Smart Mobs applies to groups of strangers equipped with high-tech devices who use them to come together for a common, immediate goal. They can be bad goals. They can be good goals. It depends on your point of view.

However, another trend is also emerging and that is the use of wireless technology and high tech devices such as digital cameras to create a new type of democratized media.

While activists used Nextel (walkie-talkie type) phones to broadcast voice instructions to many Nextel recipients (swarm ringleaders), and marchers text messaged the next swarm location to a web site called SF Indy Media.

Others used their text messages to provide SF Indy Media with a running commentary or web blogs on the march, and others took digital photos of anything that looked like police brutality. John Parulis, a documentary film maker who runs an independent web site called Brightpathvideo recruited a small team of people, armed them with digital video cameras, and recorded live video which was broadcast on the web.

"I feel that the average American is completely in the dark because of the bone shattering hypocrisy of American media," says Parulis. "We are trying to put out uncensored reportage that will enable the viewer to make up his or her own mind."

Parulis' solution is simple but revolutionary (both in a social and technical sense). Armed with a Sony DV camera, connected to a Yagi Antenna through the audiovisual output on his camera. He filmed the march and the pictures traveled over the antenna to a wireless receiver plugged into his laptop.

The laptop was some distance away but was logged onto an 802.11 network thorough T-Mobile network in a Starbucks coffee shop. The images were being streamed live (or nearly live) on the Internet.

"I have a team of volunteers and we were able to cover the event," says Parulis.

The Anti-coalition, Coalition

Meanwhile, the SF Indy Media web site was publishing the blogs of the demonstrators so new would-be protestors could jump on the web before leaving home. What this did was bring together countless smaller organizations such as the Coalition for Peace and Justice.

Most of the demonstrations in San Francisco have no real centralized committee. In fact, they are organized number of groups that are unrelated. Direct Action Against the War organized the demonstration the day after the war started. But there are countless other organizations involved which range from teachers unions to churches to political and social organizations.

Thomas Hardman, a freelance computer programmer who took part in many of the demonstrations says that he is a member of a number of organizations such as Bikes Not Bombs and a local neighborhood council.

"It took the antiwar movement in the 1960s years to galvanize opposition for the war in Vietnam, this time it took just hours to mobilize over 100,000 people," he says. "Relatively few people (100,000) were able to achieve what would have taken many more people to achieve because this time they were as well equipped at the police who have access to communications and computer networks."

Level Battle Field

Furthermore, in countries such as the UK police have long used video cameras to root out the troublemakers such as football hooligans. Now however, the opposite is also true because any authorities that behave badly, such as the LAPD officers were captured on video in LA, also run the risk of having the behavior broadcast across the web to TV networks.

Indeed, one of the most striking aspects of the San Francisco marches was that both sides were relatively well behaved and showed restraint. So the technology may have been responsible for keeping everybody honest.

But the antiwar movement is not the first instance of smart mobs. Indeed, Protesters most notably in the Philippines, used text messages to organize the crowds that drove former President Joseph Estrada from power in 2001.

But where will all this lead. Who knows? One day, perhaps, democracy will mean polling the population of a country directly on their cell phones to see if it should increase taxes or go to war. Now would that be mob rule or the ultimate democracy. You decide.

Niall McKay is a freelance write based in Silicon Valley California. He can be reached at