Mobile Text Messaging Evolves into a Political Tool

SMS comes of age in an era of protest

| October 7, 2004

While I observed the sporadic protests in New York City during the Republican National Convention, a pattern began to emerge. Numerous people sporting anti-Bush t-shirts would be quickly shuffling down the street, eyes glued to their mobile phones; then they would stop, turn around, and begin hurrying in the opposite direction. Following these people inevitably led to a hotbed of activity, where an impromptu protest would be maximizing its efficacy minutes before the police arrived en masse. Day and night, the streets became a giant game of Pacman, with activists trying to gobble up valuable street time before the ghosts of the NYPD arrived in hot pursuit. Moreover, a more cautious breed of activist used the technology for a similarly useful but opposite effect, using the frequent updates to stay clear of 'hot spots' where they might be arrested or beaten. Naturally, police dispatch also subscribed to these alerts, making sure each act of civil disobedience did not go unnoticed by the folks in blue. This is the world of political text messaging, and it's heralding a new wave of technologically-savvy activism.

Galvanized by the successes of the RNC protests, activist networks are holding an SMS summit to compare notes and share new techniques for quickly mobilizing hordes of concerned folks. Involving folks from the Ruckus Society, a direct action group influential in the RNC protests, and the Institute for Applied Autonomy, the group instrumental in coordinating the SMS 'loop' at both the DNC and RNC, the ProTECHt Democracy SMS Summit will feature participation by Radical Designs, Code Pink, True Majority, and other activist groups interested in maximizing their mobility and impact.

Organizers and participants have high hopes that the summit will prepare them for the challenges of the upcoming election, a hotly contested race where the effectiveness of activist groups may be hugely influential. Specifically, techies have their sights set on the elections themselves. John Sellers, director of the Ruckus Society, claims that Democrats didn't make enough noise during the disputed election counts of 2000 and wants to make sure that such inactivity doesn't happen again. 'What would have happened in Florida if there were 100,000 people in the streets the next day?' asks David Taylor, a Ruckus developer. Given the startling power SMS messaging has had in coordinating effective protests in countries such as Spain and the Philippines and raising the ire of censors in countries like China, Ruckus organizers have the right idea. As technology helps coordinate and catalyze activists during the national drama of presidential elections, the phrase 'nerd power' will take on a whole new meaning.
-- Brendan Themes

Go there >> ProTECHt Democracy Summit



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