Mobile phones and social activism: an Ethan Zuckerman White Paper

Mobile phones and social activism: an Ethan Zuckerman White Paper

Mobile phones as catalysts for activism in the developing world

This article quotes a section from Ethan Zuckerman’s blog ‘My Heart’s in Accra’, highlighting the significance of the mobile phone as an activist technology in the developing world. The parts of the world where mobile use is growing the most quickly - the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia are markets where the mobile isn’t a replacement for existing land-line technology, but is allowing people to have a personal communications channel for the first time.

Key points made:

  • Interactive Radio for Justice, a participatory radio show in the Ituri region of the DR Congo uses SMS to let listeners ask questions about justice and human rights to a panel of Congolese and UN officials, who answer the questions over the air.
  • In smart-mob scenarios, mobile phones function as an impromptu broadcast network. Other activist uses of mobiles take advantage of the ability of mobile owners to create content as well as forwarding it.
  • A dispersed group with mobile phones - especially mobile phones equipped with cameras - becomes a powerful force for “sousveillance“. Coined by Dr. Steve Mann, “sousveillance” refers to the monitoring of authority figures by grassroots groups, using the technologies and techniques of surveillance.
  • Sousveillance has a way of trapping authority figures, even when they are the ones holding the cameras.
  • Mobiles are powerful because they are pervasive, personal and capable of authoring content. A new dimension emerges as they become systems of payment as well, for example, Kenyan mobile company Safaricom’s system M-PESA.
  • Activists armed with M-PESA-type phones could do more than organise a dispersed protest- they could fundraise, making it possible for groups of activists to fund the travel of an activist to a protest or the cost of leaflets.
  • The powers unleashed by the mobile phone can affect all sides of a political situation.
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