Monday, November 2, 2009

The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, 21st-Century Style: Politics and Mobile Communication

When I saw that one of this week's readings was from Castells' book Mobile Communication and Society: A Global Perspective, I knew it sounded familiar. I had in fact just read the book in its entirety a few weeks before for my podcast in Professor Levinson's class. That Chapter 7, "The Mobile Civil Society: Social Movements, Political Power, and Communication Networks," was in the lineup for this week made me happy because it was one of my favorite chapters while reading the book. After reading a lot of theoretical examples in earlier chapters, including one on mobile youth culture, I liked the real-world feel of this one.

Castells explores several political and social events that have been affected by the presence of mobile technology, such as when President Estrada of the Philippines was pushed out of office with the help of SMS and the Internet in mobilizing demonstrators, and when the conservative Partido Popular (PP) was defeated in Spain after the Madrid train bombings in 2004. (Would-be voters expressed rage and indignation via their mobile phones that the PP was trying to blame a Basque terrorist group for the bombings--a group the PP had cracked down on regularly--instead of an al-Qaeda-linked, mostly Moroccan group. That rage that the PP was trying to use the attacks for political gain translated into votes, and a win, for the Socialist Party in Spain.) In both of these cases, people were able to relay information to each other quickly through mobile communication networks and ultimately effected change in their national political structures.

Worth noting as well in the Spain example is the fact that people quickly came to distrust the major TV networks, whom they viewed as hesitant to report the true facts about the bombings. They were more likely to get information from SER, the main private radio network, which they then relayed to each other via text message and regular phone calls. Interestingly, the PP tried to spread its Basque terrorist theory via text message, but it didn't work, both because people were already mistrusting the government's stance on the attacks and because it came directly from the party, a very top-down approach that did not work. What did work was the spontaneous protest by citizens with access to mobile technology, who connected horizontally and informally to influence the outcome of the election. Castells states, "Armed with their cell phones, and able to connect to the world wide web, individuals and grassroots activists are able to set up powerful, broad, personalized, instant networks of communication." The indignation expressed by a majority of Spanish citizens through that technology gave the Socialist Party a leg up toward victory.

If Castells provides the real-world examples, Bennett offers us the theoretical nuts and bolts needed to understand how mobile communication affects civil society. Although his essay deals specifically with how the Internet is utilized in the area of social justice, it has implications for society in general and can certainly be applied to Castells' examples. Bennett asks a good question early in his essay: What enables activists to use "new media" to communicate their unique messages across the boundaries of geography and traditional media?
In short, they can do so through networks that are able to "spill outside the control of established organizations." This creates a more open forum--or dare I say public sphere--for discourse and for planning. These activist networks, according to Bennett, are decentralized, often leaderless, and their members are able to communicate with each other quickly and easily. Sound familiar? While reading, I thought immediately of the Spain as well as the Philippines and South Korea examples. In all of these instances, the people created, almost subconsciously, an informal, horizontal network with the purpose of protesting their current political situation. It worked because it was horizontal and decentralized--because the government and the political party were not involved, people were quicker to trust each other and mobilize for their cause. By contrast, the SMS campaign started by the PP in Spain did not work because it came directly from the party, and for obvious reasons people wanted nothing to do with it.

Castells' examples and Bennett's analysis provide a clear snapshot of the evolving role of mobile communication technologies and their impact on civil society. Since those events took place--the Madrid bombings happened in March 2004--mobile communication has become even more advanced, and time will tell how that advancement will affect political mobilization both within nations and worldwide.

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