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New political tool: text messaging

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Early in May, 16-year-old South Korean Lee Chun-Kil slyly text-messaged his friend during class. He was so skilled at it, he didn't even have to glance down at his cellphone keypad while punching in the following: "Gwanghwamun station. 6:00."

The text messages rapidly circulated, spreading the news of the spontaneous rally. The next day in downtown Seoul, 400 students gathered to protest the severe pressures they must endure for the nation's highly competitive college-entrance exam. Many decided to come out at the last minute after a text-message they received from a friend. "I don't think the rally would have been big if we didn't have cellphones," says Im Soon-jae, one of the organizers. "We would not have been able to spread the information about this as quickly."

If television helped bring down the Berlin Wall and the fax machine helped protesters organize during the Tiananmen Square protests, cellphone text messaging, also known as SMS (short message services), may be the new political tool for activists. In tech-savvy nations like South Korea, but more so in controlled societies like China and the Middle East, text messaging has been fomenting what some experts call a "mobile democracy." Because it is unmonitored and cheap, it provides an underground channel for succinct uncensored speech. Demonstrators use it to mobilize protests, dodge authorities, and fire off political spam. It has also enabled them to engineer collective action at unprecedented speed.

The Philippines in 2002 provided the first real test of the technology, says Howard Rheingold, author of "Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution." Black-clad protesters, summoned together by a single line passed from phone to phone: "Go 2 EDSA [an acronym for a Manila street]. Wear Blck," eventually helped topple President Joseph Estrada.

Since then, the use of SMS as a political tool has become much more widespread, Mr. Rheingold says. "Huge events are happening because of it. I can think of multiple countries from all different parts of the world where elections have been affected by people spontaneously mobilizing together."


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