Book Review: SMS Uprising – Mobile Activism in Africa

Written by Simon Columbus on February 5, 2010 – 6:50 pm -

Editor: Sokari Ekine

SMS Uprising: Mobile Activism in Africa

Authors: Nathan Eagle, Ken Banks, Redante Asuncion-Reed, Anil Naidoo, Amanda Atwood, Christiana Charles-Iyoha, Becky Faith, Joshua Goldstein, Christian Kreutz, Tanya Notley, Juliana Rotich, Berna Twanza Ngolobe, Bukeni Waruzi

Subject: SMS Uprising gives an overview of the use of mobile technology for development and empowerment in Africa.

The book is made up of two parts. The first four chapters explore the context of mobile activism. Christian Kreutz has contributed a great summary of future trends and software developments in African mobile activism. Another essay by Ken Banks asks whether “social mobile” is “empowering the many or the few”.

The second part consists of seven case studies from several African countries. The fields they describe are equally diverse, ranging from e-agriculture to dissemination of political news. A special focus lies on the empowerment of women. Anil Naidoo from South Africa describes how mobiles are used in the UmNyango project to empower women in the rural region of KwaZulu Natal, and WOUGNET from Uganda aims to ameliorate the economic situation of female farmers in Uganda.

I especially liked the essay by Rotich and Joshua Goldstein on “Digitally networked technology in Kenya’s 2007–08 post-election crisis”. It is a short version of a case study written for the Berkman Center’s Internet and Democracy Project. The chapter looks at three facettes of social media in a conflict situation: “SMS campaigns to promote violence, blogs to challenge mainstream media narratives, and online campaigns to promote awareness of human rights violations.”

SMS Uprising combines theoretical groundwork and practical case studies useful to everyone interested in the use of mobile technology for activism and development. While some chapters are a bit longer than necessary, in combination the book provides a good overview of the issue.

SMS Uprising is published by Pambazuka Press. It is available on their website as a paperback plus PDF for £12.99 or the PDF alone for £9.99 as well as on Amazon.

[This is an altered version of a post I wrote for my blog, i like patterns.]

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Posted in Guides & Resources, Mobile Phones, Sub-Saharan Africa | No Comments »

Transition for Co-Founder Mary Joyce

Written by Mary Joyce on January 18, 2010 – 6:01 pm -

At the end of this week I will be stepping down from my current role at DigiActive to pursue a different interest in the field of digital activism. Over the past few months I’ve been reflecting a great deal on what drives my passion for digital activism. Amine and I began DigiActive in October of 2007 in a series of Facebook messages. We talked about creating “a forum to share projects, ideas and tools, identify allies, and above all, find inspiration”, “a loose network of digital democrats,” “a website… which deal[s] exclusively… with digital activism around the world”. The last message in the thread was from me to Amine: “This is very exciting. Let’s talk on the weekend.” And we did.

We launched DigiActive in February of 2008 and over the past two years we have built an international team of over 40 participants from 17 countries and 6 continents , published 2 guides on Facebook and Twitter activism (with one on eCampaigning strategy in the works). We released 5 academic papers through our Research@DIgiActive program, wrote over 300 blog posts detailing successful cases of digital activism around the world, and trained over 70 activists in the 3 countries of Morocco, India, and the Philippines. And all this on a budget of less than $1500 per year.

Over these two years I’ve found myself most engaged and excited by the foundational questions of the field: Why do some campaigns succeed while others fail? Where is the intellectual framework to structure our analysis of digital activism? Where is the common terminology to structure our discussions? How can we understand the mechanics of digital campaigns beyond the functionality of the latest hyped app? What is the future of digital activism beyond the implications of the latest digital victory or defeat? If digital activism can create a more egalitarian world by empowering ordinary citizens, what interventions will bring about that outcome?

For the most part, I found that these questions didn’t have answers yet, that the field lacks this type of foundational knowledge. My interests had shifted from the case-based identification of best practices that is the hallmark of DigiActive’s work, to building foundational knowledge in the field. Because I am so passionate about this challenge, I have decided to create a new organization to address it.

In order to fully devote myself to this new endeavor, I will be stepping down from my current role at DigiActive. This Friday the 22nd will be my last active day at DigiActive. I’ll stay on in an advisory capacity but will no longer have an operational role in managing the organization. I leave DigiActive not only in the capable hands of our co-founder, Amine, and editor, Talia Whyte, but also with the wonderful volunteers that have been behind our every success: guide editors like Dan Schultz, guide authors like Andreas Jungherr and Priscilla Brice Weller, trainers like Lynn Casper, who came with me to the Philippines, and writers like Simon Columbus, Tamara Palamakumbura, Hillary Kakooza, Gaurav Mishra, Hamid Tehrani, Frederick Noronha, Tiby Kantrowitz, Alex Frizzell, and, of course, or network catalyst Patrick Meier and outreach director Kate Brodock.

I am excited to see how DigiActive develops as its members constantly seeks new ways to help grassroots activists around the world use digital technology to increase their impact.

Posted in DigiActive News | 2 Comments »

Tactic: Haiti earthquake gets quick response online

Written by Talia Whyte on January 13, 2010 – 2:46 pm -

haiti earthquake

Description: Haiti was rocked Tuesday night by a 7.0-magnitude earthquake. According to a report, Haiti’s First Lady Elisabeth Debrosse Delatour said that “most of Port-au-Prince is destroyed.”

While almost all phone lines have gone down on the impoverished island, Haitians have been able to communicate to friends and relatives around the world with the use of new media. Not only has there been a flurry of tweets and photos of the devastation posted online over night, but charitable individuals and organizations have responded quickly with their efforts to help victims.

Digital Tools Being Used: Twitter, Video, Photos, Text Message, etc

What Are They Doing: Victims of the earthquake immediately got on Twitter, uploaded photos and YouTube videos and text messaged to give eyewitness reports on the tragedy like this one:

RAMHaiti: It’s 8:44PM and we’re still getting aftershocks!!I can hear people gathered in the distance singing prayers…people in large numbers are singing prayers downtown

In the last few hours charitable organizations have been able to make initial assessments of victims’ needs and have asked for donations, mostly through the use of digital tools.

Red Cross: Help Haiti right now, text Haiti to 90999 to give just $10 to the Red Cross

UNICEF: Donate now for Haiti on their website

Rap artist and activist Wyclef Jean was among the first to organize online when he sent out these tweets:

@wyclef Help Haiti by donating to Yele on follow @YeleHaiti

@wyclef Another way you can help Haiti after their 7.0 earthquake: Donate $5 by texting YELE to 501501 and by visiting

News organizations that cater to Haitian communities in the United States have also taken the initiative to give their readers updated information about the earthquake’s aftermath, such as the Boston Haitian Reporter, which has been live-blogging since Tuesday night.

What is the Impact: While a full assessment of the Haitian earthquake will be long term, this latest international incident shows the incredible value in digital activism for quick response and possibly saving lives.

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Posted in Americas, Blogs, Digital Images, Microblogging, Mobile Phones, Social Networks, Tactics, Video | No Comments »

“10 Tactics” you can use

Written by Mary Joyce on January 4, 2010 – 8:38 pm -

Tactical Technology Collective is the premiere international training organization for rights activists interested in using information and digital technology to create positive change.   They have recently released a film that beautifully presents 10 key tactics in info-activism.  The tactics are:

  1. Mobilise People
  2. Witness and Record
  3. Visualise Your Message
  4. Amplify Personal Stories
  5. Just Add Humour
  6. Investigate and Expose
  7. How to Use Complex Data
  8. Use Collective Intelligence
  9. Let People Ask the Questions
  10. Manage Your Contacts

The film has a dedicated site,, where you can check out a local screening (or host your own), and help Tactical Tech promote the film.  It’s just what activists need: clear, timely, and concise information that can be easily put into action.

Posted in Guides & Resources, Video | No Comments »

Free Bashir Campaign Begins

Written by DigiActive Team on December 16, 2009 – 11:53 pm -

Moroccan blogger Bashir Hazzam was arrested on December 7th after taking part in a student protest and posting about it on his blog.  The Free Bashir site is up now at  These types of  sites are getting more and more sophisticated.   This one has clear  background information on the case, banners for you blog, a widget, and presences on Twitter, Facebook, on Flickr.   It would be helpful if the site proposed one clear action that people could take to help Bashir.   It’s all about having a credible theory of change: how will the actions people take online affect the offline outcome of the case?

Posted in Action Alerts, Blogs, Mid-East & N. Africa | 1 Comment »

Facebook Guia en Español

Written by DigiActive Team on December 14, 2009 – 9:50 pm -

haga clic para descargar / click to download

Thanks to our friends at the International Forum for Democratic Studies and the Center for the Opening and Development of Latin America (CADAL), based in Argentina, we are proud to announce that our guide to Facebook activism is now available in Spanish. Click the image at left to download a PDF copy.

The guide, written by DigiActive team member Dan Schultz, is also available in English and Arabic. Our guide to Twitter activism, by Andreas Jungherr, is available in English and Spanish.

Posted in Guides & Resources, Social Networks | 1 Comment »

What the New Facebook Privacy Rules Mean for Activists

Written by Mary Joyce on December 10, 2009 – 6:22 pm -

Yesterday Facebook enacted a new set of privacy rules, the purpose of which is to expand the information which all users share, making it “easier for you to find and connect with the people you’re looking for.”  However, according to a great analysis by the  Electronic Frontier Foundation:

Looking even closer at the new Facebook privacy changes, things get downright ugly when it comes to controlling who gets to see personal information such as your list of friends.  Under the new regime, Facebook treats that information — along with your name, profile picture, current city, gender, networks, and the pages that you are a “fan” of — as “publicly available information” or “PAI.” Before, users were allowed to restrict access to much of that information. Now, however, those privacy options have been eliminated.

These reductions in privacy protection have significant negative consequences for activists, particularly in repressive regimes where they communicate and affiliate more freely online than they can offline.  When Facebook unilaterally removes barriers of privacy, it leaves activists and their contacts open to persecution by authorities.

If you are an activist whose political activities or affiliations are visible through your Facebook account, you need to scrub your account of political content now.  This means:

  1. Un-friend fellow activists
  2. Leave any political groups you are a member or fan of
  3. Delete political status messages, notes, and links and do not add new ones
  4. Un-tag yourself from photos of you taking part in political activities or in the presence of known activists
  5. Remove any linkages connecting you to politically dangerous people, ideas, or organizations

Even before the new rules came into effect, activists in repressive regimes should have kept their profiles clean.  A state security officer intent on viewing your profile will find a way to do it.  However, now that an activist’s name, profile picture, networks, current city, gender, friend list, and pages are automatically (and irrevocably) displayed, security personnel can use Facebook to map activist networks more easily.

Social media commentators like Evgeny Morozov and activists like Sami Ben Gharbia of Global Voices Advocacy advise activists in repressive regimes not to use Facebook and other commercial social platforms for activism at all because they are so public.  I would recommend caution but not outright rejection of these tools, which are indeed quite powerful.   In some countries the risks of detections will  be greater than the benefits of use, particularly where only a fraction of the population is using these tools, making the audience for activism limited.  However, in other countries activists may choose to continue using Facebook, but with greater caution.  It is possible to make Facebook use safer, but it is impossible to make it entirely safe.

So what are safer Facebook practices?  Other than the profile scrubbing recommended above, it means that activists need to create separate anonymous profiles for their political activities, which contain no accurate personal information and are completely unconnected to their real friends, affiliations, and locations.  In some cases, it may even make sense to create a “throw-away account,” much as activists use throw-away cell phones: create a fake account to do one sensitive action, and then never use it again.  So that a single IP address cannot be connected to you activism account, you should access that account from different public computers in cyber cafes and never from your home computer.

Activists should also refrain from posting anything incriminating on Facebook or creating groups that will endanger less tech-savvy citizens.  Maybe the Egyptian creator of the fictional group “President Mubarak is a Creep” started the group using an anonymous throw-away account, but the Egyptian citizens that join that group may not hide their identities and may thus make themselves vulnerable to persecution.  In this way activists unintentionally create “honey-pots” that ensnare fellow citizens in politically dangerous affiliations.

The competition between activists and repressive government for control of online speech and action is often referred to as a cat and mouse game where activists find ways to undermine and circumvent  blocks put in place by authorities.  However, as Facebook’s new privacy policy illustrates, this is not really a two-player game but a multi-player game.  Companies which create digital infrastructure also have the ability to give the advantage to one side or the other.  Facebook’s move unfortunately gave the advantage to repressive governments.

Posted in Americas, Mid-East & N. Africa, Security, Tactics | 7 Comments »

Tactic: Is your voice threatened?

Written by Priscilla Brice-Weller on November 30, 2009 – 12:05 am -

Did you know online journalists and bloggers now represent 45% of all media workers in prison worldwide?

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, this is the first time that online journalists/bloggers represent the largest professional category in prison. The country with the worst record is China.

Global Voices Advocacy has recently published a map — Threatened Voices — to visually display these imprisoned bloggers.

They are currently tracking 191 bloggers, which is a confronting statistic because it implies there are many more bloggers and online activists who have been imprisoned for their blog content.

Threatened Voices

As digital activits — and particularly those in countries that promote free speech — it’s important for us to remember that some voices are still not being heard. If we genuinely believe in free speech we need to be supportive of those voices by amplifing them, and in a way that maintains the safety of the blogger. One way we can do this is through digital activism. For me, amplifying those voices that are often not heard is what activism is all about.

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Posted in Guides & Resources, Security | No Comments »

Against Crowdsourced Politics

Written by Mary Joyce on November 16, 2009 – 2:47 am -

The last post begins with the seemingly benign phrase “the promise of digital activism is to crowdsource global political transformation.”  I wrote it and I was pretty proud of myself.  I thought it succinctly summed up the potential of decentralized politics, where power is defined at the edge and by the grassroot, by thousands of ordinary citizens mobilizing together.   Well, Michel Bauwens set me straight.

Michel is the founder of the Foundation for Peer-to-Peer Alternatives.  I heard him speak yesterday at the great Internet as Factory and Playground conference in New York.  Michel didn’t set me straight directly, but his definition of crowdsourcing, and its distinction from peer-to-peer collaboration, made me see the error of my ways.

The key is that crowdsourcing is still centralized: the producer is still a cog in a machine, only the machine is bigger.  It’s not a factory, it’s the entire world, and producers are connected by the network, not be shared physical space.  The individual producer chooses which part of the task she will take, she takes a much smaller part, and she decides whether or not to participate, but she does not decide what the overall project is.  Whether the task is something as malevolent as identifying Iranian protesters for the government or as benign as fans re-shooting Star Wars, the task is defined at the center, produced at the edge.   It is no coincidence that the term crowdsourcing derives from another practice of hierarchical labor distribution: outsourcing.

Peer to peer production is different:  it is center-less and it is non-hierarchical.  Even if someone is organizing, that person has no more power than any other member of the project.  There is no center and edge.  There is only the network.  The web site doesn’t make the origins clear, but if Star Wars: Uncut is organized by a group of fans, then their project to re-shoot their favorite movie by piecing together thousands of scenes re-staged by other fans is peer-to-peer.  If the project is organized by Lucasfilm Ltd., then it is being crowdsourced.  It is all about who benefits and where the power lies.

What would this mean in the political realm? Crowdsourced politics means that the center benefits ultimately from the divided labor: for example, a political campaign asking supporters to host fundraisers in their homes or directing citizens to call their Congressman to support or  opposed a piece of legislation.   The effects of crowdsourcing might be in the public interest, but even though execution of the task occurs at the edge, the ultimate decision of what the activity will be is decided at the center.

Read more »

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Posted in Americas, Campaigns, Theory | 6 Comments »

A Broader Network for Digital Activism

Written by Mary Joyce on November 12, 2009 – 1:19 am -


Update:  Thanks to  feedback from Dirk Slater I’ve changed the title to “A Broader Network for Digital Activism”, which recognizes the great work that organizations like Tactical Tech have done to create  global networks of activists.

The Promise of Global Citizen Empowerment

The promise of digital activism is to crowdsource global political transformation by giving ordinary citizens around the world the ability to more effectively campaign for social and political causes. The collective result of these campaigns would be a global closing of the gap between the powerful and powerless and a fundamental shift in political life around the world.

The Reality of Limited Success

Yet this best case scenario is only one possible outcome of the injection of digital technology into politics. Repressive governments around the world have proven quite adept at spinning and blocking the tools of digital activism and censoring and persecuting activists. Though the technology-assisted protest movements in Iran, Moldova, and Egypt, received a great deal of press, they were not successful in challenging the political power structures in their countries or even in winning modest reforms.

For all its success in spreading information and facilitating the mobilization of people and resources, the successes of digital activism are few and far between and its future is far from assured. If we want to achieve the promise of digital activism, interventions will be necessary.

The Disconnected Players

There are many players who intervene on behalf of digital activism, whose actions serve to spread and strengthen it. There are governments, private foundations, non-profit and for-profit trainers and consultants, public intellectuals, software and hardware companies, the media, and of course the activists themselves. Together they create the digital activism ecosystem.

Yet these players do not see themselves as part of the same ecosystem. The COO of Facebook may meet with an official at the State Department, but a representative of Hivos, an active Dutch technology funder, probably will not be in the room. High-powered political technology consultants may meet prominent bloggers at a conference, but a representative of the GSM Association, which facilitates global mobile phone standardization, probably will not be invited.

In order to create a common agenda for the promotion of digital activism around the world, players must first see that they are playing on the same field.

The Need for a Network

What is needed in this field is a networking organization unlike any other. The purpose of this organization will not be to strengthen the bonds of an existing network, as is usually the case, but to create a network where none currently exists.

What would be the strategy of such an organization? The expectation would be to go straight to policy by holding events on mobile innovation or technical assistance programs and seeking to build collaborative relationships between the various institutions in the field.

However, starting at the institutional and policy level would be premature. The first step should be to focus on relationships. It is daunting to try to engineer organizational coordination between the Department of State and the GSM Association, but can Alec Ross, Secretary Clinton’s Senior Advisor on Innovation, share a coffee with Tom Phillips, Chief Government and Regulatory Affairs Officer at the GSMA? Yes, he could. Could Ory Okolloh, co-creator of the mobile crisis mapping platform Ushahidi, and Josh Elman, Twitter’s Product Manager, also be at that meeting? Yes, they could, and what an interesting meeting it would be. Imagine the e-mail thread the day after and the effect of future cooperation. Read more »

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Posted in Theory | 2 Comments »