A Click Becomes a Political Tool

"Big events like last year’s antiwar demonstrations on February 15 would exist even without the Internet, but they would be much smaller," says Lorenzo Mosca, a researcher from the University of Florence on civil society’s use of new technologies.

"New technologies like e-mail and short text messages (SMS) radically changed the way to mobilize people," Mosca adds.

From the mid 1990s when an avalanche of e-mails pushed governments to sign the international Treaty to Ban Landmines, civil society’s activities have become more and more dependent on information and communication technologies (ICTs).

"Websites let people access alternative information and bypass the institutional media, and information mobilizes people," Lello Rienzi from the Italian civil society group organizing the protests against the war on Iraq told IPS.

The group had made massive use of mailing lists. The organization website www.fermiamolaguerra.it (stop the war) attracted more than a thousand civil society organizations to join the protests. "Those thousand organizations have a thousand websites where they promote our message of peace," Rienzi says.

Text messaging has become a crucial tool in rallying people. In Spain last week protests were organized within hours through use of SMS.

"Today March 13 at 6 PM PP (Partido Popular, the former ruling party) headquarters Calle Genova. Without parties. Silence. For the truth. Forward it." This was one of the messages that started what has been called the "night of the short text messages" in Madrid.

The messages demanded "the truth now" (verdad ya) and "no more manipulation" (manipulacion basta ya). Another said "your war, our dead" (vuestra guerra nuestros muertos). All of them ended with a simple request: "forward it" (pásalo).

Thousands of people gathered in front of PP headquarters in several Spanish cities denouncing lack of transparency in the investigation into bombing of the trains March 11, in which more than 200 people died and over 1,400 were wounded. In Madrid the spontaneous mobilizations fed by SMS messages went on for 11 hours.

That evening there was a 20 percent growth in SMS messages. The following day, which was election day, there were 40 percent more messages than on an average day, according to communications firms. It was the day that brought a historical upset.

Telefónica Móviles, the Spanish phone company that processes 25 million text messages every day reported a "change in typology" of the messages sent: most were related to attacks and the investigation.

But civil society had started to use mobile phones to organize collective action well before that.

At demonstrations against the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in Prague in September 2000 demonstrators were given a mobile phone number. That meant activists did not have to stay behind a desk, they were out on the streets away from police eyes.

In January 2001 SMS helped bring together a political rally in the Philippines. In April the following year mobile phones were widely used by protesters against President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. The same month text messages helped gather demonstrations against the far right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen in France.

On March 19 last year a group of 3,000 Swiss students demonstrated in Sion against the war in Iraq. The time and place was given out by SMS.

There are about a billion mobile phone subscribers around the world, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) reports. At the beginning of the 1990s there were just 10 million. Europe has about 400 million mobile users sending more than 15 billion text messages every month, according to the international wireless message operator Netsize.

People turn to the Internet for alternative information when they do not trust the official version of events.

"It seems like the terrorists are from an extreme Islamic organization, but the government denies it even now, when all the evidence points in this direction," said an e-mail message circulated in Spain March 13. On the day of the bombings March 11 Internet traffic in Spain grew between 4 and 8 percent, according to Internet service providers.

"Mainstream media failed its mission. By SMS people could know what was really taking place on the streets. They could have more information through alternative media websites," Laura Cuecueria, a media activist from Madrid told IPS by (mobile) phone.

ICTs offer the possibility of making voices from the street heard worldwide directly.

During the Mayday parade in London in 2000, Indymedia UK, the British branch of the worldwide Independent Media Center that provides open- publishing platforms on the web, placed public access terminals in the middle of the demonstration. People uploaded their comments directly from the demonstration to the website. "Be your media" is Indymedia’s catchword.

"We don’t report about the protests, but instead give the demonstrators the opportunity to report about themselves and write their own story," Arne Hintz, researcher at the University of Hamburg and an Indymedia network activist told IPS.

There are 591 million Internet users around the world, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). About a third of the population of the industrialized countries uses the Internet, while in the developing world Internet access is inevitably far less.

"The Internet population is still a small elite, slightly less than 10 percent of the world population," Mosca told IPS. But when it wants, it can be heard.

Read more by Stefania Milan