Mobile Phones in Mass Organizing: A MobileActive White Paper

Posted by KatrinVerclas on Nov 17, 2007

Anyone following protest movements in the last few years has witnessed how mobile phones have become an integral part of the mass organizing of protests and demonstration. In the Philippines, South Korea, Nepal, Bolivia, China, the Ukraine, the United States, and most recently Burma and Pakistan, cell phone have connected activists and ordinary people, giving civic voice to individuals and creating communication channels for organizing, mobilizing, and reporting.

Manuel Castell describes how mobile phones have changed the landscape of organizing because they have created a new public space for communication that "effectively bypasses the mass media as a source of information." This "new public space" -- the mobile phone -- has created not only a forum for information, but is a unique tool in the mass organization of protests movements and other forms of demonstration. Mobile phones have also enabled protesters and others to tell their story in video and pictures even when other media is curtailed. We'll discuss here tactical uses of mobiles in organizing, security for activists and NGOs, and address some of the realities (and myths) that have surrounded the rise of the mobile phone as a tool in mass organizing.

Protests around the World

Examples of mobile phones used in mass organizing abound. One of the first reported widespread uses of mobiles in a mass demonstration took place during the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle in 1999, often referred to as the "Battle of Seattle." Organizers and demonstrators used mobile phones to coordinate and mobilize activists, allowing them to change tactics or move people at quicker speeds than in previous protests. Using mobiles allowed protesters to evade police, talk to lawyers when necessary, and communicate with the press from the thick of the crowd.

Some of the most widely reported uses of mobiles in mass organizing took place in the Philippines. The Philippines has been called "the text-messaging center of the world." It has about three million fixed-line telephones and 2 million Internet subscribers. This country of 85 million people has more than 30 million mobile phone subscribers, making mobiles the obvious choice for use in advocacy and popular movements. In 2001 over a million people gathered to protest against the corrupt government of Joseph Estrada in favor of the presidency of Gloria Arroyo, the current president. The instant communication and organization enabled by the use of SMS played an important role in the success of the demonstration. Some even joked that the peaceful revolution was a "coup de text," referring to the instrumental role that SMS played in the ouster of Estrada. Online and text polls, online petitions, and text jokes all played a significant role in popularizing the "oust-Estrada" message. One post-Estada SMS read, "CONGRATULATIONS! THANK U 4 UR SUPPORT N DS HSTORICL EVENT. ERAP WIL GO DOWN N PHIL. HSTORY S BEIN D 1ST PRESIDNT OUSTD BY TXT."

A few years later, Gloria Arroyo was at the receiving end of the populist power of the mobile phone when the so-called "Hello Garci" scandal broke. The scandal began in 2005 when audio recordings of phone calls between President Arroyo and the Virgilio Garcillano, the election commissioner, were publicly released. The phone call included the political figures discussing the rigging of the 2004 national election.

The wiretapped call was ingeniously turned into a ringtone by an activist group, TXTPower. The ring tone starts with Hello, Garci? Hello Ma'am. It became one of the world's most downloaded ring tones, featured in news outlets worldwide. Other versions of the Hello Garci ringtone and ringtones from wiretapped conversations were created and remixed, some of which are available for download here.

Text messaging played an integral role in Ukraine's pro-democracy protests in late 2004 and early 2005, known as the "Orange Revolution." As in the Philippines, protesters used mobiles to help organize a massive protest against fraudulent election results, which eventually led to a re-vote. Hundreds of thousands of voters -- particularly young people -- were able to coordinate their activities through the use of SMS. Gene J. Koprowski, of United Press International, writes, "The court-ordered election rematch in Ukraine this past Sunday, featuring opposition presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, probably would not have happened were it not for mobile phone technologies."

In South Korea, young people used SMS to turn the election to President Roh Moo Hyun in 2004. Similarly, texting in Spain led to the unexpected defeat of the Popular Party, and SMS in Poland -- including jokes like "Steal your grandmother's ID" -- is engaging young people in the election process.

Mobiles have also been present in the recent protests in Burma, both as communication devices by the protesters themselves, and by citizens, press and bloggers who spread the grainy camera-phone images around the world. Vincent Brossel, of Reporters Without Borders, told the AP that mobiles and the web were essential in spreading news of the atrocities committed in Burma to the outside world. "People are able to take pictures and videos to evidence what is going on," he said. "Technology is the most useful weapon you can use in such types of pacifist struggles." Citizen journalists, as described in an article in the Wall Street Journal -- sending images of street fires, bloodied monks, or other military repression -- have used camera phones and SMS to transform Burma's national struggle into a chapter within a global pro-democracy narrative.

Tactical Uses: Smart mobs, swarming, and reporting

From a tactical perspective, mobiles have been used in mass organizing in a number of distinct ways. There is "smart mobbing," in which a large group of people organize in an intelligent and efficient manner. Howard Reingold, author of the book Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution, said that mobiles are instrumental in the instant communication needed for a smart mob. "Smart mobs really grew out of the idea that people are able to coordinate their activities, even if they don't know each other, on the basis of a group of teenagers or a million citizens in ways they weren't able to before," he writes. The protests in Ukraine and the Philippines are examples of the effectiveness of smart mobs, and why mobiles are the perfect technology for such protests. According to this article from the New York Times Magazine:

A smart mob is a self-organizing group of people who operate like a swarm of bees or a flock of pigeons. Scientists have long studied the intelligent ''emergent behavior'' of hive-style animals. But texting on cellphones is now allowing humans to behave in the same way -- forming into a group that is controlled by no single person, yet which moves as if it has a mind of its own. Since mobile text-messages can be instantly forwarded like e-mail pass-arounds, the mobs frequently involve masses of people who have never even met.

Raul Pertierra, in a paper on The Role of Mobile Phones and the Internet in the Political Culture of the Philippines, writes that what distinguishes smart mobs from conventional movements is their lack of central organization or hierarchy. Smart mobs don't have a leader or central organizer, but move organically as a group, responding to a message sent from other members.

Smart mobs are often discussed in the same context as "swarming." According to John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, authors of Swarming and the Future of Conflict, swarming was the historic process used by armies "in which units disperse, fade into everyday life, and then suddenly appear and converge on a target, either by prearranged signal or by opportunity shared by information peering." Today, mobiles have made swarming a much easier process than it was back in the days of the Mongols, as protesters like those in Seattle were able to instantly communicate, mobilize, and then return to their everyday lives. Swarming tactics were also used in the Republican Convention Protests of 2004. Activists used bulk messaging software such as TxtMob to meet at one location, and after receiving warnings that police were on their way, moved on to a new street. "Providing real-time information to activists in the street allowed fluid, spontaneous actions to occur across the city, and enabled new forms of participation and collaboration among activists," wrote Tad Hirsch and John Henry, the developers of the TxtMob software.

This asyncronous organizing has several advantages over the use of centralized SMS tools that send out bulk messages from one source. Although SMS bulk message providers can send thousands of messages at a time and thus are effective for advocacy campaigns, they stand a much higher chance of being blocked by government authorities when used as part of popular protests. Ethan Zuckerman describes numerous examples of governments that shut down mobile networks and gateways in advance of elections and in response to protest movements. SMS was blocked by the governments of Iran, Albania, Nepal, Thailand, and Cambodia in the periods before elections. In Iran, activists could still send SMS through mobiles; only Internet gateways were blocked. The Ethiopian government, on the other hand, has blocked SMS for the last two years because the opposition party Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) used SMS to coordinate protests. SMS service there was just restarted in September 2007.

In contrast, mobile-empowered smart mobs can spread messages from one person to the next, thereby decreasing the chance of government intervention (unless the entire network is shut down). The organic spread of SMS also makes the message more "personal" -- a potential protester may be more likely to respond to an SMS from a trusted friend or friend of a friend than from someone with whom she has no personal connection. Manuel Castells and several colleagues comment on the use of SMS services such as TxtMob. They write, "While these types of services effectively brought together communities of like-minded people for the purpose of activism, they lack the character of direct person-to-person texting based on interpersonal relationships, because users have to sign up to send or receive messages through the service provider’s server." Although services like TxtMob have certainly shown to be effective in some situations, people may be more likely to respond to a message from a friend or personal connection.

Pertierra describes how mobile phones have contributed to the safety of organized movements, giving demonstrators a tactical advantage that they lacked in the past. "Cellphones 'secure' our coordinators in a game of psy-war. Political opponents with bad intentions are less likely to harm our members knowing how quickly we can react," he writes, quoting a organizer from the political left in the Philippines. Mobiles give an added element of safety to protesters because they can instantly contact or warn a colleague who is threatened or hurt. The powerful images of mobile phone cameras also contribute to safety on a more global level; when the world is watching, regimes or governments may be less likely to hurt demonstrators. At the same time, cell phones can also be a security liability if monitored or confiscated.

Here are some tactical considerations to keep in mind:


1. Bulk/mass SMS can be sent to supporters with logistical information -- meeting places, dates, times or other info. This only works if you already have a list of numbers to send to.

2. Set up a voice or SMS hotline. The hotline could contain information on a campaign topic or updates on an issue or plan.

3. Bulk SMS can help to organize and coordinate campaign strategies, allowing for more accurate information and communication than messages that are spread virally. Homegrown services like TXTmob that was first developed for the DNC and RNC conventions, are useful. Others include Dialup Radio, FrontlineSMS, and the Microsoft SMS server. However, be aware that these kinds of bulk SMS services are more likely to be intercepted or blocked as spam than person-to-person texting. They also usually do nor scale well beyond a small size.

4. GPS mapping can be used for location and organization.

5. Campaigns traditionally use "comms" -- organizers who have two-way radios and communicate logistical information. Mobiles are a good substitute for the two-way radios -- not only are they more reliable, but a biker with a mobile is less conspicuous than a biker with a radio. For example, "comms" riding bikes during the Republican Party convention in New York used TxtMob to oversee police activities and then communicate with protesters.

6. "Meetup groups" -- groups where anyone can join and send communication to all other members -- are a more democratic means of communication because anyone can communicate within them. Open to anyone who wishes to join, they are less restrictive than using comms, but as a result the information is less reliable.

7. Another option is the "dispatch" model -- only certain people are authorized to send SMS to the group. These operators, who are often located away from the protest, obtain information via SMS, police scanners, and radio. According to Tad Hirsch and John Henry, this model is often used by "groups of volunteer medics and legal observers."

8. Use an organizing tool like Twitter to send alerts to people via mobile phone and keep track of the people that you're organizing. A description of Twitter used instead of a traditional security tree is available here.


George Irish identifies three ways for SMS to be spread virally. All three of these methods presume a central organizing entity.

1. Sneezers: When people choose to join a campaign they are asked whether they wish to be "sneezers," or SMS promoters who forward messages to their contact lists. The sneezers receive special messages "recognizing them as special campaign volunteers and supporting their works as important network builders."
2. Post action chaining: After someone completes an SMS action, like texting to sign a petition, they receive a follow-up SMS from the campaign that asks them to forward a pre-prepared SMS to other people in their address book. Some allow them to add a personal note. Then the sequence continues to the next person in the chain.
3. SMS viral call: One SMS containing both a specific action and the request to forward the message is sent to campaign subscribers. According to Irish, this is very cost efficient. He writes, "This form of campaign marketing is very effective as it can reach a highly targeted audience with little or no additional investment by the organization since both the audience filtering and delivery cost are borne by the message forwarders." Irish recommends using this only at "peak campaign moments" to make it more likely that people will respond.

However, even non-centralized messages can be a powerful part of a campaign. Several mass organizing movements have included jokes that spread organically from mobile to mobile. Isaack Okero Otieno suggests that SMS jokes during the 2002 election campaign in Kenya helped to lighten the tense political atmosphere while also pointing out flaws in the ruling party. For example, one joke read, "Shika Jogoo, chinja Jogoo na ushereke na marafiki" which translates roughly to "Find the rooster, slaughter it and party with friends." According to Otieno, "This joke had double implication. On the other hand, it was meant to communicate to voters that KANU who party symbol is a Rooster was going to slaughtered (defeated), on the other hand it also communicated to KANU supporters to defect from the party and join the opposition parties who were going to have a celebration after the defeat of KANU in the 2002 elections." For examples of SMS jokes -- especially from the Philippines -- are available here on

1. Keep it short -- the SMS obviously needs to fit within 160 characters. The most recent joke in the Polish election was short -- "Steal your grandmother's ID" -- but it succinctly captured the political divisions between youth and older voters.
2. Pay attention to language issues. In the Kenya case, it was important that the joke be in the vernacular. Otieno writes,

The reason for using the vernaculars was, first, that some of the jokes lose their weight and meaning when translated in to Kiswahili or English. Secondly, ethnicity is very central in the Kenyan election process. Political language is translated and interpreted using ethnic background and history as such any political communication must be codified in to relevant vernaculars for it to leave an impression in people’s mind.

3. Know your audience. Factors like political background, age, and ethnicity matter. Poland's joke was effective for a younger audience, but obviously wouldn't have worked with an older one.
4. The message must be catchy and compelling. Is it humorous, and compelling enough that it will be passed on? Does it fit into the 'zeitgeist' of the protest?


One important component of mass organizing is transmitting information to outside sources, both bloggers and mainstream media. A protest or other campaign is much more likely to be successful when seen and monitored by outside eyes. Mobile video can also be used to record human rights abuses, as was the case with a video circulated in Egypt documenting the sexual abuse and beating of a man by Cairo police. The video, which was taken using a mobile phone and then circulated both on the internet and between mobile phones, helped to bring international attention to the situation.

The following are tips for using mobiles to communicate with an international audience outside of an organized movement.

1. Photos or videos can be transmitted to supporters, including sympathetic bloggers and NGOs. Identify supportive media before the protest or campaign begins and establish contacts and communication channels.
2. Some mainstream media outlets are even receptive to "citizen journalists" using mobiles. This Wall Street Journal article describes ways that citizen journalists were instrumental is getting information, images, and videos out of Burma, and major news services like the BBC use content submitted by citizen journalists using mobile phones. As we wrote about on, a recent Nokia/Reuters collaboration has developed a "mobile toolkit" that will be useful to citizen journalists.
3. Mobile transmission of videos or images can be a powerful way to communicate with outsiders after Internet or other other networks have been shut down.
4. Videos shot on a mobile phone can be posted on YouTube, further broadening global exposure. To upload directly from a mobile phone, first create a mobile profile on YouTube. YouTube will provide you with a special email address that you can use to send the video using MMS. Videos can also be posted on's new video hub -- a website devoted to using videos in human rights work -- after creating a free membership profile.
5. Swiss researchers are developing software that allows camera phones to be used as a "smart surveillance network." The phones communicate via Bluetooth and use software to compare what is happening on each screen. The software, which is open source, will be released once it is improved by the researchers. This concept has the potential to be used in mass organizing.

Mobile Security

As mobiles have become a vital tool in mass organizing, activists and organizers worldwide have become aware of security issues related to the use of mobile phones. As mobiles have shown to be an effective organizing tool, anti-democratic governments seek ways to shut off or monitor mobile phone communication.

Mobile phone users in the developing world are a step ahead of the game, according to Ethan Zuckerman. He writes:

In general, the anonymity of mobile phones is one of the key reasons they’ve been so useful to activists. In the US, we consider most mobiles to be highly traceable - generally, mobile users have a phone number associated with a permanent address and a credit card. But mobile phones in most developing nations are sold on a pay-as-you-go basis. Some countries require registration of a phone’s SIM card using a validated ID, but most don’t, either for the SIM or for “top-up” cards. As a result, it’s not difficult for an activist to have a single phone with multiple SIMs, one which is closely correlated with her identity and one which might be used to send messages to organize a protest or promote a cause.

However, mobile phone tracings by the US government have shown that mobile users with pre-paid cards many not be as anonymous as they'd like to believe. In Security, Liberty, and Electronic Communications, Susan Landau shows how the US government traced mobiles used by Al-Qaida, despite the their use of anonymous pre-paid cards.

Even "anonymous" cellphones can be used for tracking. In a case in 2002, investigators tracked al Qaeda members through terrorists use of prepaid Swiss-com phonecards. These had been purchased in bulk -- anonymously. But when investigators discovered through a wiretap on an intercepted call that "lasted less than a minute and involved not a single word of conversation" that they were on to an al Qaeda group, the agents tracked the users of the bulk purchase. The result was the arrest of a number of operatives and the break-up of al Qaeda cells.

If al Qaida's mobiles can be tracked, surely NGOs -- who likely take many fewer security precautions -- can be tracked as well. The NGO Security Blog recommends sending out monthly text messages to all users to test the system and being aware of problems that can be caused by overloaded or damaged mobile infrastructure. The blog also advises using code words in offers some security suggestions for NGOs that use mobile phones. "Don't put all of your eggs in the SMS basket," they warn, encouraging users to have a backup plan in case networks fail or are compromised by security concerns. It may also be possible for hackers to jam SMS networks, this New York Times article suggests, furthering compromising security and communication.

Not only SMS can be tracked, but mobile phones can be turned into bugging devices as well. A technique used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the US, called the "roving bug," allows the user -- the FBI in this case -- to access the microphone on a mobile and use it to eavesdrop on the conversations that take place around the phone without the surveiller ever having physical possession of the phone. According to this legal opinion, the FBI's actions are actually legal under current federal wiretapping laws. Although most NGOs and protesters are not as attractive a candidate for the "roving bug" surveillance as the Genovese mafia family described in the document, NGOs should certainly be aware of the potential for mobiles to be hacked.

Mobiles can also be hacked in a way similar to that of computers. According to the Activists Security Guide, there is a type of software that can scan a room and detect the make and models of all mobiles in the room. The software will then send out a message to the mobiles which prompts them to install an "update" - malicious software that allows for third-party monitoring of the phone -- everything from address book contacts to SMS and email messages.

Although this may sound threatening, there are plenty to measures that activists and NGO practitioners in insecure environments can take to keep themselves safe. These include:

1. Use a prepaid SIM card, which won't be associated with a name of financial information. Be aware that service providers of monthly phone accounts keep track of all call records, times, locations, and contacts.
2. Routinely delete information -- photos, SMS, call records, contact information and address books -- on your phone. If possible, change the settings so that the phone doesn't store outgoing text messages.
3. Purchase your mobile anonymously -- pay in cash and do not provide ID. You may also want to purchase the mobile at a location far from your home. Don't register your phone -- it's not required by law.
4. Switch phones routinely.
5. Routinely take the battery out of your phone, especially while traveling. Take the battery out if you are around a sensitive conversation so that your phone microphone can't be used.
6. Do not enable GPS on your phone.
7. Use codewords in your conversations/SMS if you suspect they are being monitored. Consider using code to prove that you are in control of your phone.
8. Buy a simple phone if possible. More complicated phones -- with internet access and other features -- are easier to bug.
9. Avoid predictable patterns of phone usage.
10. Avoid making calls in areas with CCTV.
10. Realize that mobiles can also be used to confuse security monitors. You can create alibis by using the tracking capabilities of different mobile phones.

MobileActive's Security Guide, this Practical Security Handbook, and's Guide to Mobile Phones provide additional valuable security information.

Mobile realities

It's easy to fall into a sort of cheerleader role for the emergence of mobile phones as a protest tool and for its equalizing value in the developing world. But not everything about mobile development is worth cheering for. Not only pro-democracy demonstrators use smart mobs and swarming -- Al Qaida and street gangs do, too. In 2006, over 200 people died in riots in Nigeria during the World Cup. According to Reingold, SMS was one the primary tools used to coordinate the protests.

The effectiveness of mobiles has perhaps been exaggerated, propagating myths that mobiles "cause" demonstrations, social revolutions, and regime change. Mobiles are just one tool among many that have been used in such movements, one more aspect of globalization that has, as Thomas Friedman would say, "flattened" the world into a more interconnected, faster, and, at times, more equal society.

Mobiles also are inherently restricted in their ability to create a forum for social dialogue. A 160-character SMS message can only say so much, and functions better as a mode of organization and communication than as a platform for civic deliberation or dialogue. Castell et al. mention the failure of SMS as a source for information and dialogue during the SARS crisis in China in 2003. When the disease first struck, the Chinese people sent text messages to each other, spreading warnings of the unknown plague throughout the country. However, the Chinese government, in response to the rumors spread via SMS, launched a mass media campaign to convince the public that the disease was nothing more than a bad strain of pneumonia that was already under control. Unfortunately, the Chinese people believed the government. According to Castell:

This official campaign via traditional media effectively undermined earlier information disseminated via mobile phones because SMS was perceived to be a medium of lower credibility and there was no other alternative source of information. As a result, most people including experienced foreign analysts living in South China chose to believe the official version, just to witness in a few weeks the horror of SARS in a full swing. Given that the power of mobile phone was so inadequate for the sustenance of a non-state information system even regarding a life- and-death issue of such immediate concern, it would be much more difficult for the new technologies to be applied to other autonomous socio-political uses with any significant consequences, at least in the short run.

However, unlike in the SARS case, mobiles used in many protest movements require only a short message -- a warning of danger, a tactical plan, or a meeting location. Although mobiles are certainly more useful for this type of simple message, limitations on effectiveness still exist. Pertierra writes that the efficacy of mobile phones, or any technology, is entirely dependent on the presence of an existing network. He uses EDSA III -- a Philippine protest sparked by the arrest of Joseph Estrada in April of 2001 -- as an example. He writes:

The technology is only as effective as the social circumstances dictate. The attempt to duplicate communitas in EDSA 3, when supporters of deposed President Estrada marched against the government in Malacanang, failed despite the significant use of mobile phones and other communicative technologies.

This is of course common sense but still worth noting: mobiles do not "possess an inherent capacity for transformation," but rather "only assist in the achievement of socially, politically, or economically constructed goals." Vicente Rafael, in his article "The Cell Phone and the Crowd: Messianic Politics in the Contemporary Philippines," takes a similar stance. He says that, although some people refer to the use of mobiles in protests as a revolution, it is merely a technological revolution and not a social one. "Texting is thus 'revolutionary' in a reformist sense," he writes. Mobiles themselves cannot create social change or abolish class or state divisions but merely serve as one tool among many used by already established networks with preconceived ideas.

Perhaps, however, Rafael underestimates the ability of the mobile phone as an equalizer, a way of giving a social voice to those who previously had none. In Seattle, the Philippines, and Ukraine, there were certainly already existing organizing networks. Mobile phones themselves didn't create the ideas or connections necessary for political and social change. But mobiles did help to expand the networks exponentially, including people -- especially young people and those normally disenfranchised -- who may not have been involved in such movements without the connections that the use of mobile phones created. Networks were able to expand so successfully because of the non-hierarchical nature of the smart mob -- each demonstrator could reach out to friends, family, and neighbors who were part of their personal network who would, in turn, do the same. Although the efficacy of mobiles has perhaps been exaggerated by the popular media and by the activists themselves, mobiles truly have become an invaluable and critical tool for mass organizing in the 21st century.

Written by Corinne Ramey, edited by Katrin Verclas

Photo courtesy My Hourglass