SMS as Alternative Media in Elections

Posted by admin on Apr 07, 2008

As the standoff in Zimbabwe continues after the election a week ago, mobile phones are used as a vital communication tool to disseminate news and information - sometimes to the point of jamming the networks. We have previously written about how jokes are used as a way of political expression. Dumisani Ndlela, in Zimbabwe, writes about this as well, and how the networks are overloaded with both messages from abroad and with the county. She also describes the jokes circulating:

One reads: “We would like to apologise to the nation for the late release of the presidential results. This is due to the rigging process, which is proving to be more difficult that we had anticipated.”

Another one reads, “If ZEC fails to supply us with the presidential election results by the end of today, we will have no choice by get them from the black market…”

The third one reads: “Big pick up truck wanted: State House to Zvimba.” Zvimba is Mugabe's rural home.

She notes that,

...Telecommunication services have been jammed as people jostle to inform each other and enquire about the outcome of the presidential poll, close to a week since elections last Saturday.

It's taking close to 20 attempts to get through to a cellphone because of congestion, already struggling due to an economic meltdown that has hamstrung import of critical equipment.

“It's people calling from everywhere,” says Daniel Mathuthu, a manager with a retail group. “Relatives in the Diaspora are calling to give those back home breaking news from international channels, or calling to enquire about the peace and possible outcome of the election results, particularly the presidential results.”

Meanwhile, Kubatana, a Zimbabwean network of activist organizations, is using Frontline SMs (reviewed by us here, together with other Do-It-Yourself SMS campaign tools) to receive text messages from the public about "predictions, hopes, and election nyayas" to the organization. Amanda Atwood summarizes some of the responses received in her blog post "Texting it In"

Here are some responses:

  • Freedom of expression & association. Observation of human rights. Impartial judiciary, economic emancipation etc
  • Transparency, health and education delivery, a new constitution, non-partisan police and army, accountable leadership and good economy
  • We need fuel to be available in service stations, to access forex in the banks, free primary education, affordable health delivery system and cheap food for all
  • Mainly I am concerned with return of the environment of happiness we used to have
  • New Zimbabwe - new constitution by the people for the people.

We wish for a quick and fair resolution of the impasse and a full and unbiased reease of the election results in Zimbabwe, and our best wishes to the courageous activists there.

Half way across the world, Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said that he regrets that his governing party ignored alternative media like SMS in the recent elections. "It was a serious misjudgement. We made the biggest mistake in thinking that it was not important," he said in a speech at a conference. "We thought that the newspapers, the print media, the television was supposed to be important, but the young people were looking at SMS and blogs."

In the days both leading up to and after the election there a month ago, SMS messages flew between the mobile phones of the voters in Malaysia, relaying political jokes, messages about speeches and political events, and post-election results. The use of SMS and alternative media is largely credited with helping the opposition party to dramatically increase its seats in Parliament.

The election, which took place on March 8, was a major setback for the governing coalition that has run Malaysia for the past four decades, since the country gained independence from Great Britain in 1957. The Barisan Nasional (BN), the governing coalition headed by Abdullah, will stay in power but lost the 2/3 majority necessary to freely amend the constitution. According to The New York Times, the BN won just over 60% of the federal parliament seats, significantly less than the 90% of the seats that they won in the 2004 elections.

Although most discussion on the use of SMS has revolved around the opposition parties, the ruling BN used SMS as well. However, instead of relying on the viral spread of jokes and other messages, the ruling party used bulk SMS messages sent to random mobile phone numbers. As Bernice Low writes on CNet Asia, these tactics were borderline spam. She writes,

The ruling party, of course, did not ignore digital campaigning. But they went for a blitzkrieg approach, going for SMS blasts to random numbers. I know someone who got nine SMSes urging him to vote for the incumbent party. Whether or not this would constitute mobile spam is an interesting question that perhaps the MCMC may want to look into, especially since one wonders where the mobile numbers were procured from in the first place!

SMS was also a much-used news source after the election, as the mainstream TV stations didn't announce seats that had been won by the opposition and the SPR -- the Malaysian Election Commission -- didn't update its website with election results. Low writes,

And of course, SMS was key to the spreading of election results (including the major upsets), thanks to people stationed at counting centers who were able to get first-hand information about the election results, and to get it out when the SPR's personnel were holding back results. Post-election, Malaysians clearly still have election fever, with several SMS jokes now making their rounds!

Part of the reason that SMS was so widely used in the Malaysian elections is likely due to their fairly repressive mainstream media environment. Reporters Without Borders ranked Malaysia as 124 out of 169 on its Worldwide Press Freedom Index in 2007. According to the AFP, the mainstream media is largely tied to the National Front, so the opposition party relied mainly on SMS and other alternative media -- like the Internet, blogs, and alternative news websites like Additionally, mobile phone penetration in Malaysia is fairly high; about 85% of Malaysians have a mobile phone.

Some have questioned whether the effect of SMS and the Internet on the Malaysian election has been exaggerated. A survey of in 2004 conducted by Malaysian academic Dr Shamsul Amri Baharuddin concluded that while SMS was widely used, most people used SMS as a way to check the location of their polling center and receive notification about political speeches. According to the survey, 73.2 of respondents said that their vote was not influenced by "political" SMS messages. “The respondents added they paid more attention to messages on the date and venue of political speeches instead of those that involved jokes,” says Baharuddin.

MobileActive has also reported on the use of SMS in other elections - including the elections in Kenya, Zimbabwe and the United States.

Photo credit to

Corinne Ramey and Katrin Verclas contributed to this post.

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