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People, not technology, drive politics
Andy Ho
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.

In The Logic Of Collective Action, the late Nobel laureate in economics, 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 interests'.

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 last year.

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 daily.

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 shifting targets.

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 scenes.

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 campaign.

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 matches.

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.


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