NCMR: Power in Your Pocket: Cell Phones and Social Change

A panel at the National Conference for Media Reform discussed how cell phones can be used for community and issues organizing efforts.

Mobile Has Reach

Cell phones not just preferred form of communication but primary form for millions of users. They are quickly being adopted at the expense of land lines, and are proving to be more effective than email in reaching certain groups.

One panelist, Monifa Akinwole Bandele, polled the audience, asking, “Who here has ever deleted an email without reading it?” This was nearly unanimous. She then followed up with, “Who here has deleted a text message without reading it?” which received exactly the opposite response. Maybe it’s because it’s newer technology, or because the time commitment involved in reading an SMS is less. Either way, people read what you send to their phones.

SMS has also proven to be a powerful communications tool when dealing with groups who don’t own computers such as minority populations including Latinos who have some of the highest mobile adoption rates in the United States.

According to Becky Bond from CREDO Mobile, the USA mobile-only (no land line) population projected to reach 30% by the fall election. Outside the United States, mobile phone access often dwarfs lane line access. For example, 97% of Tanzanians have access to a cell phone by either owning one or through access to a shared one in their community where no land lines exist.

With that in mind, SMS has become a popular communications tool for fast, easy, and cheap messaging – especially when compared to email, direct mail, or door knocking by non-profits or political organizations.

Mobile Challenges

However, using cell phones / SMS for organizing may be at risk. Carriers aren’t necessarily fans of seeing their networks used for political organizing. For example, Verizon Wireless refused to allow NARAL, a Pro-Choice organization to send opt-in SMS messages through their network until media pressure forced them to change their policy. Outside the United States, some government owned mobile networks have been shut down during elections. As Jed Alpert, CEO of Mobile Commons, explained, “We’re much further from net neutrality in mobile than on the web today.”


A few audience members asked about whether Twitter would be a good choice for text based organizing. The panel, some of whom work in the mobile industry was mixed on this, however, knowledgeable audience members seemed to think it would be a valuable platform for nearly free messaging. Of course, it doesn’t offer some of the statistics you’d receive through direct messaging, or the control you’d receive from parsing your own mobile database in order to target appropriate demographics.

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