Mobile Opportunities in Southern Social Movements

Posted by KatrinVerclas on Oct 07, 2008

How are social movements in the global South taking advantage of the ubiquity of mobile phones?  Melissa Loudon, a researcher now working at the University of Capetown, looked at how the South African Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) is using mobiles in their work to advocate for a comprehensive HIV/AIDS policy in South Afric, and wrote this article based on her research.

Kevin Gillan, a researcher on the British anti-war movement, describes social movements as “definitionally collective and communicative”.  Co-ordination of protest action, mobilisation of financial resources and strategic interaction would be almost unthinkable without information and communication technologies (ICTs). Although the importance of mass media to social movements has long been recognised, new ICTs burst on the scene in 1999 when demonstrators in the 'Battle of Seattle' orchestrated unprecedented protest action using mobile phones, email and the Internet. Ever since, ICTs have been accepted as an integral part of mobilisation in the North.

But where does this leave Southern social movements? There are two well-known cases of decisive use of ICTs in protest action in the South. The Zapatistas, described by Manuel Castells as “the first informational guerilla movement”, used the Internet to communicate their plight to a global network of supporters during a critical stand-off with the Mexican army. In so doing, they attracted unprecedented media attention, forcing negotiations that were closely monitored around the world. More recently, opponents of the beleaguered Phillipine president Joseph Estrada used text messaging to co-ordinate the 'People Power II' protests, succeeding in ousting him following a failed corruption charge.

Both cases have particular contextual limitations that limit their generalisability. The Zapatistas, in their stated opposition to NAFTA and neoliberal policies, found immediate sympathy among global anti-capitalist networks. In the Phillipines, the uptake of text messaging is unprecedented, with some of the highest rates of mobile adoption in the world and a boom in associated mobile services.  This is driven by an significant emerging middle class, which was overwhelmingly involved in the People Power II protests. In fact, initial analyses of the ousting of President Estrada have been critical of accounts depicting the protests as the will of the people, pointing out that his significant support base among the poor was overruled by middle-class protesters with access to communications infrastructure – in this case, text messaging. Discrepancies in access between different groups, and even within households, always need to be considered when planning or analysing a mobile communication project.

Nonetheless, mobiles offer exciting opportunities for Southern social movements. One group that is actively exploring potential mobile applications is the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), a South African social movement working for the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS. The movement works in poor urban townships and rural areas, where communications infrastructure often is limited. Of around 220 TAC branches, 5 have a connected PC, but 215 have a mobile number at which they can be contacted. TAC in the Western Cape is piloting additional mobile applications to support advocacy and service delivery work.

Among the applications being considered are:

  • Using targeted SMS messaging (bulk messages and messages to defined groups, e.g. all branch leaders) to improve organisational efficiency, meeting attendance and mobilisation for protest action

  • Exploring mobile participation, through small donations, information messages (fact of the day, inspirational quotes) or messages of support. This has already been used in response to the recent wave of anti-immigrant violence that spread across South Africa.

  • Keeping interested members of the public informed through regular update messages. By doing this, the TAC hopes to develop 'latent' supporter networks, which could be mobilised in response to an event or crisis

  • Keeping journalists informed of stories as they unfold, and exploring the possibility of expanding citizen journalism to

  • Extending the geographical range of the movement to reach people who cannot travel to regularly a branch, drawing them in to TAC activities as they are able

  • Providing information and support to people infected and affected by HIV/AIDS, both as part of service delivery and as a way of disseminating issue 'frames' – ways in which issues are perceived and represented.

  • Using ring tones, wall papers and games to support fun mobile expressions of 'HIV positive' activist identity.

Although the project is still in its early stages, it provides some thought-provoking directions for the use of mobiles in Southern social movements. Linking social movement organisations to technical expertise (provided by a local health-focused NGO, Cell-Life, in the case of the TAC), remains crucial to effective use of mobile technology. For movements that are able to explore these opportunities, however, the potential for low-cost, high-impact mobile communication is extremely exciting.

Related resources: 

Mobilizing in Albania and other stories from the mobile youth movement

Mobile Phones in Mass Organizing: A MobileActive White Paper


Image courtesy: The World Bank


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