Going Mobile: Text Messages Guide Filipino Protesters

Raymond Palatino, far right, organizes protest plans with a group of students. Some protesters use plastic wrap to protect their cellphones in case police use a water cannon.
Raymond Palatino, far right, organizes protest plans with a group of students. Some protesters use plastic wrap to protect their cellphones in case police use a water cannon. (By Mary Jordan -- The Washington Post)

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By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 25, 2006

MANILA -- Raymond Palatino's cellphone pinged loudly, and a text message lit up the display: "Other students are already marching. Where are you?"

Palatino and hundreds of others -- nearly all carrying cellphones -- were on their way to Manila's gated presidential palace for a protest rally. Palatino and what people here call a "text brigade" were still a couple of miles away, about to board buses in the steamy midday heat.

"No, not ready," he typed, holding his phone in both hands, his thumbs flying across the buttons. "We're 30 minutes away."

In a string of unsolved murders in recent months, trade union leaders, government critics, students, journalists and others have been killed. Students had begun clamoring for President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to do something.

Once they might have called a demonstration by printing fliers. Now, they do it by mass texting. Palatino had spent days getting the word out, banging out text after text on the keypad of his little Nokia phone.

"WEAR RED. BRING BANNERS." The messages -- faster and cheaper than phone calls -- went to thousands of young people, telling them to gather near Morayta Street.

"I didn't talk to anyone," said Palatino, 26, a university graduate who has a contagious smile and aspires to be a teacher. "All the organizing is done through texting. It's affordable and instant."

Cellphones and text messaging are changing the way political mobilizations are conducted around the world. From Manila to Riyadh and Kathmandu protests once publicized on coffeehouse bulletin boards are now organized entirely through text-messaging networks that can reach vast numbers of people in a matter of minutes.

The technology is also changing the organization and dynamics of protests, allowing leaders to control, virtually minute-by-minute, the movements of demonstrators, like military generals in the field. Using texts that communicate orders instantly, organizers can call for advances or retreats of waves of protesters.

This tool has changed the balance of political power in places where governments have a history of outmuscling dissent. In April, Nepal's King Gyanendra ordered authorities to cut cellphone service after protesters against his absolute rule used text messages to help assemble street protests by tens of thousands of democracy advocates.

The Philippines, widely called the text-messaging center of the world, has led the way. When President Joseph Estrada was forced from office in 2001, he bitterly complained that the popular uprising against him was a "coup de text."

This country of 85 million people has only 2 million Internet users and 3 million people with land-line telephones. But there are more than 30 million cellphone subscribers here, according to government statistics, more than double the figure in 2002.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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