People, not technology, drive politics
22 July 2005 (courtesy Straits Times)
One problem in politics is that people with a common
interest generally don't organise and fight for it. The reasoning
goes: If you bear the time and energy costs of organising, I can sit
back, watch you do the work, then sign on. It is just easier to get
a free ride.
The Logic Of Collective Action, the late Nobel laureate in
Mancur Olson, argued that unless very few individuals are
involved, or someone can coerce others, or some special device
compels individuals to do so, 'rational, self-interested
individuals will not act to achieve their common or group
Today's information and communication technologies (ICTs)
could well comprise one such special device. For example, once the
generous remuneration package of the then-chief executive of the
National Kidney Foundation, Mr T.T. Durai, was revealed in court, a
public outcry ensued. In under two days, 43,187 signatures were
gathered at an online petition that a 20-year-old full-time national
serviceman, Lawrence Tan, had set up to demand greater
accountability from the charity and urge the CEO to step down.
The board, including Mr Durai, resigned last Thursday. While there
must have been other considerations, the petition probably helped
nudge them out.
So is online campaigning the thing to watch now? Probably not. Yet.
For one thing, someone equipped with the know-how can churn out
repeated signatures for an online petition, which may thus not be
entirely reflective of ground sentiment.
Moreover, recent experience shows that instead of online petitions,
blogs, e-discussion lists or e-mail, it may be the humble cellphone
- its short messaging service (SMS) in particular - that is
up-ending politics the world over.
Last month, during the Iranian presidential elections, state
television regularly broadcast warnings that it was an offence to
send SMS messages promoting a particular candidate. The Iranian
authorities must have been spooked by the Spanish polls of March
Then, co-ordinated by SMS, thousands of young people had gathered at
the headquarters of the ruling Popular Party a day before the polls
to protest against Prime Minister Jose Aznar's disinformation
campaign about the March 11 train bombings in Madrid.
In his 2003 book, Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution, Howard
Rheingold calls such groups of people equipped with mobile
communications devices that allow them to act in concert - whether
they know one another or not - smart mobs. On that day, similar
smart mobs also appeared throughout Spain. The authorities called
the mobs illegal but arrested no one since millions were involved.
Mr Aznar lost the elections.
Here is one lesson: If, in the past, you went to a place - say, the
mall - to find out what was going on, now you find out what's going
on by cellphone, then go where it is happening. If we were once
isolated individuals, now we can organise without guidance and bring
people together in one location for just-in-time partying.
Perhaps the Madrid activists were inspired by their Manila cousins.
After all, a third of Manila's 1.65 million people have cellphones
and send an average of seven SMS messages each daily. But at the
height of People Power protests against president Joseph Estrada,
usage jumped to between 70 million and 100 million SMS messages
On Jan 16, 2001, just a few hours after 11 pro-Estrada senators
blocked a move by the prosecution to impeach Estrada by linking him
to billions in a bank account, bribes and shady bank deals,
activists began transmitting an SMS that said: 'Go 2Edsa. Wear blck.'
Within an hour, tens of thousands had arrived at Edsa, Manila's
People Power shrine, all in black. Eventually some 700,000 people
gathered to demand that Estrada step down. Vice-President Gloria
Arroyo then took over.
But this is not to say that technology is driving things.
Superficially, digital media may seem to be transforming political
activism: An effective network can be built without enforcing a set
of common beliefs, so rather than having a political party with a
specific platform, one could have a looser association of people who
agree about some things but differ about others. Also, the ability
to respond just-in-time means activists can hit even rapidly
Examined more closely, however, these new social movements derive
more from changes in their social and political contexts rather than
technological innovations as such.
Take Manila, for example. Before the impeachment began, Mrs Arroyo
resigned as Social Security Minister to join former president
Corazon Aquino and Cardinal Jaime Sin in an anti-Estrada pact. Thus,
even if People Power did end Estrada's rule, there was a powerful
cabal comprising Mrs Arroyo, Mrs Aquino and Cardinal Sin, plus
invisible backers in the armed forces and big business, behind the
The crowds may have formed faster and bigger because of cheap SMS,
but, otherwise, popular mobilisation differed little from the past:
It still drew up plans for civil disobedience, issued deadlines for
the authorities to act, called upon existing organisations to do
their bit, massed at symbol-drenched locations, and resorted to
marches and mobs.
The impeachment acted as a visible nexus for the campaign. The huge,
loud crowds constrained Estrada's options to stonewall or deploy
force against them. And prominent national leaders were involved,
the elite backing moulding public disaffection into a sustained
Another example underscores these points.
Before South Korea's presidential elections of December 2002, Mr Roh
Moo Hyun had little support from the media or conglomerates. Largely
known for his failed bids to enter Parliament, this time around,
however, Mr Roh's campaign would exploit ICTs to reach the youth,
among whom he was a two-to-one favourite. (Half of South Korea's
voters are aged under 40.)
An online group boasting 70,000 educated young people led Mr Roh's
e-campaign. They called themselves Nosamo or Roh supporters.
Nosamo's campaign sites featured video clips of Mr Roh and audio
broadcasts by rock star supporters. At its main website, US$1
billion (S$1.7 billion) was raised from 180,000 individuals.
Unexpectedly, however, Mr Chung Mong Jun of the National Alliance
who had withdrawn from the race to throw his support behind Mr Roh
broke ranks eight hours before polling began. At 11am on election
day, exit polls had Mr Roh trailing.
At Seoprise.com, Roh supporters quickly gathered, analysed and
shared information on the race in real time. They then directed
their SMS to 800,000 friends and friends of friends in the districts
where the race was close. Urged to get the vote out, these
traditionally apathetic young voters went out in force. By 2pm, Mr
Roh had surged ahead to win.
It was the last-minute mobilisation of young voters in the last
eight hours which handed Mr Roh his victory. That day, 75 million
SMS messages were logged by the nation's largest telco alone.
This, however, is the small picture. Stepping back, the bigger
picture is that the young had already been primed by two things
unrelated to the campaign. First, young Koreans learnt about social
activism during the 2002 Korea/Japan World Cup games. The online fan
club of South Korea's national soccer team, Red Devils, used ICTs to
get 22 million young people to simultaneously pour out onto the
streets throughout South Korea to cheer the home team's seven
To the amazement of European and Latin American fans, these crowds -
decked out in red - carried out their 'street cheering' in an
orderly fashion. Many youth thus learnt to feel good again about
being Korean after national pride had been battered in the 1997
Asian financial crisis.
Secondly, this newly socially sensitised generation cut its teeth
further on anti-American protests. In November 2002, two US soldiers
who had run their armoured vehicle over two Korean teenagers were
acquitted by a US tribunal of culpable homicide. On Nov 27, one
individual appealed to the public through instant messenger to fill
Kwanghwamoon, Seoul's Edsa. Against the objections of the older
generation, 10,000 gathered there to denounce US troops.
Unhappy about the 37,000 US soldiers stationed in South Korea, the
young took action to get the vote out for Mr Roh who promised to
rectify South Korea's dependent relationship with the United States.
Thus, although facilitated by technology, Mr Roh's ascendancy really
came on the back of these movements.
So, as it has always been, revolutions occur only when social and
political conditions are such that ordinary folks become willing to
ignore threats to life and limb, and pour out in huge numbers into
the streets to clamour for what they want.
Technology makes coordination in such situations simpler, but when
conditions are not ripe, no technology can impel people to do the
extraordinary. People, not technology, continue to drive politics.