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New political tool: text messaging

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In South Korea, for example, many experts agree that current President Roh Moo Hyun would not have been elected without the help of the Internet and SMS. Back in December 2002, conservative mainstream media favored his rival Lee Hoi Chang to win the election, especially when a former rival who had endorsed Mr. Roh unexpectedly withdrew his support on the eve of Election Day. But Roh's core supporters, who were of the younger "information technology" generation, launched a massive last-minute campaign. They fired off e-mails and text messages to 800,000 voters on the morning of election day, urging them to go to the polls.

With the support of alternative news websites like OhMyNews and SMS messaging, Roh won the presidency by a slim 2 percent margin. "I heard stories where Koreans would interrupt their ski trips and come into the city to vote because of panicked text messages from friends," says Jean Min, OhMyNews international director. "You might not trust what is coming out of the TV, but you take it seriously when the message comes from a friend."

In nations such as China, where the Internet is censored, cellphones may play an even more important role. They're one of the few means to get the word out without being monitored. China also happens to have the largest cellphone market, with approximately 350 million users. Last December, 12,000 Chinese workers went on strike against a supplier of Wal-Mart. Although they weren't part of a union, they mobilized through the use of SMS.

"It's like the poor person's Internet," Rheingold says. "A fisherman in China might not have a computer, but he has a mobile phone which tells him which port to fish, the market prices, and so on."

For three weeks this spring, China was in the grips of mass anti-Japanese protests. Chinese youths had been sending chain-letter e-mails and text messages exhorting citizens to boycott Japanese merchandise and take to the streets, giving logistical information on protest routes and even what slogans to chant. Although the messages had no clear organizational identity, they helped draw 20,000 people together for a public march on April 16.

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