Mobile Technology in Global Politics



Politics is about the art of mobilization: how to mobilize the people, make them believe what you believe and follow you. Political movements across the world have adopted mobile technology as a primary organizing tool. According to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), worldwide mobile phone subscribers are over 6 billion. In some countries, such as U.S. and China, half of mobile phone subscribers use smartphones, which augments the impact of new media on politics. Affordable mobile technology is creating new wave of Internet users with drastic impacts on civil society, politics and governance. For developed and developing countries alike, the Internet and mobile technology are changing the way the public relates to the political elite. On the small screen, we receive information about political events, we donate money to campaigns and we can even find information that the government may not want us to know.

On November 7, Rob Grimshaw, managing director of, one of the most successful newspapers, which innovated the paywall model to rescure its business, said the future is mobile. Financial Times released its first iPad app back in May 2010 and smashed through its target of 20000 downloads in its first year within 7 days. Grimshaw forecasts that within three to four years mobile will be the lead channel for content delivery.

The popularity of mobile phones is changing the way those in power interact with citizens and each other. In 2012, we have more than 30 counties in power transition, starting from Taiwan in January, Finland, Yeman in Feb., German in March, France in May, Egypt in June, Netherland in Sep., United States and China in Nov. to South Korea in Dec. and so on. For political campaigns, using new media and mobile technology for political communication is no longer a simple novelty. Communication strategy has embraced these tools to communicate with potential voters. Beyond elections, mobile technologies are also being used to organize popular movements and uprisings. In Hong Kong, the junior high school student used Facebook and Twitter to organize “Scholarism" movement against the coming moral and national education program. In China, Weibo, to some degree, has served as a check on the centralized political authority's power, such as with the Guo Meimei Red Cross Controversy.

How will mobile technologies reshape the political landscape? Does mobile technology foster democracy or can it also be used as a tool for control? How do politicians respond to the power of mobile technologies? Does mobile technology make political movements stronger, more rapid, louder and more angry? Our project will try to answer the above question by exploring various cases from across the Globe.

Internet Users.png
Internet adoption is increasing at a rapid pace across the world, and recent trends in mobile technology promise to make the increase even faster. For developed and developing countries alike, the Internet and mobile technology are changing the way the public relates to the political elite. Source: World Bank

Hong Kong's Scholarism: Biggest street protest since 2003

New media and Internet use in Hong Kong. Source: We Are Social

The Scholarism: Against Moral & National Education showed how Hong Kong teenagers used mobile technology and internet to speak out and change the politics. According to 2011 HK government statistic, the mobile penetration rate was over 100% and the social network penetration rate was over 54%. Most of mobiles in HK are already smartphone.

In 1997, the transfer of sovereignty over to Hong Kong from the United Kingdom took place. It was the only case which an area moved from a democracy government in colonial way for 99 years to a communist regime, especially after the end of cold war. Because of the historical background, Beijing administration proposed and promised a policy, so called “one country, two systems” for at least for 50 years. Hong Kong will be autonomous. People can elect the congressmen directly and indirectly elect their Chief Executive. However, because of the arguable congress design, half are selected by specific groups, most are businessmen with economic interest in China market, the legitimacy of the Legislative Council were doubted by Hong Kong citizens.

Background of Moral and National Education Program

In 2001 after the turnover, the curriculum reform was undertaken by the Education Bureau. Moral and National education program was one the four key tasks of this reform. On Oct. 13 2010, HK government finalized the plan to introduce the new subjects in primary school in 2012 and secondary school in 2013. The potential candidate of Chief Executive, Donald Tong, stated the new curriculum will strengthen “national” education. The public started to call this as a brainwashing program.

Scholarism and Mobile Technology Usage

Scholarism — The Alliance Against Moral & National Education was formed on Facebook and on May 29, 2011. The main argument of the alliance was the concept of this program has been included in General Studies, which promote critical and independent thinking. The new subjects will just ask the students to memorize knowledge in textbooks. The teachers’ job is to make students love their motherland- People Republic of China.The most surprising part of Scholarism was who organized the events. The answer was three junior high school students born after 1990. They were Heywood Chan(born in 1994), the chairman of 90s, Ivan Lam (1994) the president of school WILL and Joshua Huang (1997), representing social activities of 90s.

No one could image these three teenagers would lead the biggest protest of HK since 2003.By tracing facebook, their first event was held on June 25. They actually just earned 900 signatures. Only 33 persons said good! On July 1, Scholarism held its first street protest. Only 200 students joined and earned reports. The Chinese government ignored this event and said young students knew nothing. By August 21, they just got 3000 signatures supporters. It was still a lonely student event until the end of 2011.

Scholarism gained its momentum from other social events. First was the Homg Kong 818 incident. Li Keqiang, the Vice Premier of PRC, visited the University of HK on Aug. 18. His arrival led a lock- down and complete takeover of he school by HK police and became a controversial issue. This was a subtle change. On Aug. 25, Scholarism (
學民思潮) was defined as a sensitive word fully blocked in Weibo, Chinese twitter.

Hong Kong was the major funding source in Tiananmen incident therefore June 4 was special day in HK since 1989. In June, Li WangYang, a Chinese dissident labour rights activist, was found suicide in his home after he was released from the prison, where he lived for a long time since 1989. He was just interviewed by HK media. Hong Kong citizens asked Beijing to organize an independent investigation task force for this. Un-satisfaction and distrust of Beijing’s political promise, one country two system, finally brought nighty thousand people on the street, according to Scholarism. It was the biggest protest march since 2003. On Oct. 9, LEUNG Chun-ying, the chief executive has finally announced the official stay of moral and civic education curriculum guidelines.

Right now, the scholarism still keeps updating their facebook and the event has not expired. The FB of Scholarism (164,355 likes · 6,638 talking about this) has become a public forum for HK social movements. In the past one and a half years, social media combining with mobile technology made them organize participates easier. In 2011, there were 24 high schools set their own facebook pages to attract students in their campus. They were like subsidiaries without clear hierarchy. Loose, inclusive but interactive communication has kept this event boiling.

Joshua Huang , the leader of Scholarism said he had around 1700 friends on FB and two hundreds of them were activitists. Since junior high school, he thought to use his time more productive instead of playing game in front of computer. He found it was possible to mobilize and gather people through FB. Now he spent 30 mins to review all the news after the school. Also he put the relevant information to gain followers’ attentions.

Watch from 1:20 - 3:00.

Conclusion of Hong Kong case

It would be too naïve saying mobile technology would change the world. However, it did change something. First, it lowers the cost of social mobilization. It is hard to image how much resource you need to prepare for 1.5 years movement. But with social networks anyone can act as the media. You can earn an audience and speak out. Secondly, it lowers the age of activists. Joshua Huang started his social participation at 12 to stop the new plan of bullet train. They used free software for their films in post-production. They are the generation of technology and the hope for independent thought.

United States: Big Data and Presidential Politics

U.S. Share of Internet Page Views, August, 2011 - August, 2012. Source: comScore

The United States has one of the highest rates of Internet usage in the world. However, according to World Bank data, Internet users fell for the first time in U.S. history following the economic recession of 2007 and 2008, but began to grow again in 2010. Still, the Internet adoption rate in the U.S. has only been surpassed by a handful of mostly European countries, oil-rich Middle Eastern countries and a few highly developed countries in Southeast Asia, such as South Korea and New Zealand.

A recent comScore report found that mobile phones and tablets accounted for “13.3 percent of total Internet page views in August 2012, nearly doubling their share of traffic in just one year.” This dramatic increase in smartphone and tablet use for browsing the Internet is likely a large contributing factor to the renewed upward trend in overall Internet usage since 2010.

Cultural and Political Context

The U.S. is a federal presidential constitutional republic, which is dominated by two primary political parties – Democrats and Republicans. Presidential elections occur every 4 years, and presidents serve for only two terms. Also, unlike many presidential and parliamentary systems, presidents are not elected by a direct popular vote. Instead, individual states are allotted a certain number of electoral collage votes based on population. This – combined with America's complex political geography – give individual “swing states” an outsized influence of the outcome of presidential elections.

Growth in Internet use has had an enormous effect on the political discourse and election outcomes in the U.S., and as smartphones become more pervasive mobile technology will be increasingly important for political organization. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that, "27 percent of registered voters have used their cell phone to track news or information related to the 2012 election." Another Pew Research Center study following the election, found that "29 percent of those under 50 [years old] announced on their social media networks how they voted or planned to vote."

Case Analysis

In the 2008 primary elections, the Obama Campaign itself by its ability to convert "armchair activists" on the Internet into donors and volunteers. During that election, Obama's online strategy had three main components: mass targeted emails, social media (Facebook and Twitter), and website-enabled volunteering and reporting. Underlying all these things was a massive database of possible voters that enabled the campaign to encourage voter registration, influence undecided voters, and coordinate a massive get-out-the-vote (GOTV) campaign. Many analysts have argued that Obama's tech-savvy tactics propelled his campaign to victory, but the Obama Campaign use of technology to enable a massive field program and GOTV effort was particularly influential in his victory.

The Obama Campaign's massive online organizing campaign in 2008 set the groundwork for an even larger innovation in the 2012 election. The campaign amassed an incredible amount of data on the American electorate, collecting information on more than just name and email address, but also political affiliation, voting precinct, Facebook friends, cell phone number, online browsing habits, and more. Time Magazine reported that the Obama Campaign created a "single massive system that could merge the information collected from pollsters, fundraisers, field workers and consumer databases as well as social-media and mobile contacts with the main Democratic voter files." This single unified database was the product of a top-secret campaign initiative dubbed Narwhal. Massive data sets, like the one used by the Obama campaign, referred to as "big data" because the collection of information is so large and complex – on the order of exabytes of data – that it becomes difficult to process. In fact, the Obama Campaign had to hire data scientists to makes sense of it all.

What is “Big Data”?

Big data has been used by online firms like Netflix and Amazon for years to predict users preferences and target advertising to them based on those preferences, but the 2012 Obama Campaign was the first time big data was used to predict the preferences of voters. According to an article by Lois Beckett of ProPublica, big data collected by the campaign was used to generate “a set of four individual estimates for each swing state voter’s behavior.” These four indicators included: likelihood of supporting Obama, likelihood of voting, likelihood of responding positively to campaign reminders to go vote if they didn’t vote regularly, and likelihood that that a conversation about a particular issue would persuade them to change their minds if they were not strong Obama supporters.

How are you being targeted? Find out here.

Collecting massive databases and finding ways to rate the preferences of voters does nothing unless you have a strategy to turn that information into votes. The Obama Campaign’s strategy was to target messages to individual voters based on the indicators described above through the Internet, mobile technology, and the work of volunteers.

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Email sent by the Obama Campaign on election day using information from Facebook to encourage the recipient to reach out to his friends to encourage them to vote.
The Obama Campaign used information collected online to target tailored messages to voters through online ads and through their social networks. For instance, if a voter used the Obama Facebook app they granted the Obama Campaign access to information about the user’s entire social network and personal profile. The campaign used those data to encourage individuals to call their friends who had not yet voted in order to get them to vote.

Mobile technology has expanded the impact of the Internet for the simple reason that voters can now carry the Internet around in their pockets. Sending targeted messages via social media or email is more effective
with mobile technology because those messages are more likely to reach voters when and where they are relevant. Furthermore, mobile technology use allowed Obama Campaign volunteers to tap into the insight generated by big data through a mobile canvassing app. The app showed volunteers a list of people they should contact in their neighborhood (people that either needed encouragement to vote or were still undecided but could be persuaded). The app then gave the canvasser a script based on the issue preferences – which were determined by big data – of the person they intend to contact.

The era of big data politics might also mark the end of the era of personal privacy. Privacy advocates have claimed that the Obama Campaign’s data collection methods were hypocritical because the Obama Administration is a forceful advocate for a browser-based “do not track” system, among other safeguards, that would invalidate certain data collection strategies used by the campaign. It remains to be seen whether the era of big data politics will be a positive for democracy – encouraging more participation in the democratic process – or a negative – giving campaigns greater access to personal information, infringing privacy, and potentially limiting voter choice.

China: Guo Meimei Red Cross Controversy

Technological Context

china1.pngAccording to a data released from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology of China, the number of mobile phone users in China increased by 32.57 million to 1.02 billion in the first quarter of 2012. Chinese citizens are becoming increasingly to relay on mobile phones as a primary tool to communicate, obtain information and entertainment. In other words, china has been the biggest mobile market in the world that is more than three times the US and accounts for more than one sixth of the world’s mobile subscribers at the end of 2011 according to investigation by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). At the same time, a recent study has showed that there were 431 million mobile Internet users in China at the end of Q4, 2011 as well as China is now the largest market for smartphone with 22percent over the US at 16 percent according to estimates by Analysys International and Canalys. Most of the people both the urban and rural-dwellers surf the Microblogs ("Weibo") on their mobile phones instead of computers due to mobile phones have more convenient and cheaper characters.

Cultural and Political Context

china2.pngThe politics of the People's Republic of China take place in a framework of a single-party socialist republic. The leadership of the Communist Party is stated in the Constitution of the People's Republic of China. State power within the People's Republic of China (PRC) is exercised through the Communist Party of China, the Central People's Government and their provincial and local counterparts. People's Congress members at the county level are elected by voters. These county level People's Congresses have the responsibility of oversight of local government, and elect members to the Provincial or Municipal People's Congress.

Over the past three years, Microblogs (“Weibo”) have become the most significant internet phenomenon in China. Originally, Microblogs were launched in August 2009 as a Twitter clone. However, according to the “30th Statistical Report on Internet Development in China,” released in July 2012, there were 538.6 million internet users, and 353.3 million Microblog (“weibo”) users, an increase of 296.0% compared with the end of last year. At the same time, mobile “netizens” reached 388 million, and mobile phones replaced the desktop computer as the first priority of all methods connecting to the internet in China at present. In other words, with quicker, more convenient and cheaper characteristics of mobile device, we could expect that Microblogs will dramatically increase in China in the next years.

Case Analysis

At the end of June 2011, a netizen was infuriated when a 20-year-old woman named Guo Meimei, who claimed on Sina Weibo to be the general manager of a company called Red Cross Commerce, boasted about her luxurious lifestyle, flaunting her Maserati and Lamborghini cars, expensive handbags and palatial villa. “Within 2 hours, her microblog was shared over a thousand times. After one day, those content of her latest Microblogs update had already been reposted over 100,000 times via mobile phone and computer. Within the next a couple of days, there were more than 640,000 Microblogs posts concerning the Guo Meimei incident alone” according to People Daily (Shan Xuegang,2012).

china3.pngHer showing off sparked wide suspicion as people questioned how a young woman working for a charitable organization could be so wealthy. Internet users began to research her position and criticize the charity, which, as a branch of the Chinese Health Ministry, remains closely tied to the government. The Red Cross Society of China, a state-run charity and the largest in the country, denied that Guo was one of its employees, and she later backtracked on her purported job title. In the meantime, the Chinese Red Cross went through an audit that uncovered financial irregularities.

Guo Meimei’s boyfriend was subsequently identified as Wang Jun, a 42-year-old man who organiszs charity drives for the Red Cross. He was forced to quit his position over the result from the scandal and subsequent investigations: “Guo became an unwitting poster girl for the murky world of Chinese philanthropy, in which donations have long been suspected of funding more than just charitable causes. Guo’s scandal became a beginning rather than an ending of the exposure of the problems on state-run charity organizations, which are condemned to monopolize the country’s philanthropy and lack transparency” (Hannah Beech, 2011). After Guo’s scandal, the Red Cross Society of China declared plans to cease all commercial activities: “Through Guo scandal, it greatly reduced donations from the public, with a decrease of 59.39% in 2011”(China Daily, 2011). Just one month later, in face of the mounting pressure of public opinion, the Red Cross Society set up an official Microblog to release information about the allocation of donations. At the same time, government investigators launched an investigation of the charity.

Most charity organizations in China are state monopolies that lack responsibility mechanisms. A large number of critical voices arose around the scandal. Hu Xingdou, an economics professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology, said, “Not only does our government not formulate relevant law on charitable funds, but also they never force the charity organizations to make public their accounts, which provide the leaders opportunity to carry out corruption. While the Red Cross must clearly open to the public where the donation goes to, our government should reform the charity system” (China Daily, 2011). Additionally, Yu Jianrong, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, affirmed, “this is just the beginning of the unveiling of the problems of state-run nonprofit organizations and charities. I think this can be a positive force to push Chinese civil society to promote more transparency” (China Daily,2011).

The significant impact of the case is that China's Ministry of Civil Affairs started to solicit public opinion on draft guidelines for developing the country's charities and increasing the transparency of donation procedures, management and use processes. According to the draft, China will increase its efforts to introduce and amend laws and regulations that manage donations and voluntary services, as well as the registration of non-governmental organizations, private non-enterprise units, and foundations. This case demonstrated how the masses used mobile technology to influence state politics and policy practices, resulting in the resignation of some leaders and the government’s declaration of amending laws and regulations.

Microblogs by mobile technology provide a new channel of interaction between the state and citizens. Mobile technology help bring about political change by expanding the sphere of participation. Therefore, people are no longer an observing outsider, but rather active participants in politics. This is a crucial aspect for real democracy and political development. However, Microblogs by mobile technology is not a direct way to promote democracy. The establishment of genuine democracy in China is dependent upon the establishment of independent judiciary, legislative, and administrative institutions. On the other hand, microblogs play a critical role in nurturing the intellectual space and environment for democracy to develop, and they also increase awareness of people's rights. Microblog is the most significant and only platform currently available for people's enlightenment in China. Microblogs by mobile technology as an experimental field are providing and will continue to provide a civic space to culture and foster the formation of the real democracy.

  1. China's official assessment report for Microblogs in 2011. Available at
  2. Shan Xuegang (2012) How Microblogging power shakes reality in China. Available at 07/02/content_12822166.html
  3. Hannah Beech (2011) TIME’s Pretty Young Cover Girl Who Wasn’t. Available at
  4. CHINA DAILY (2011) Available at

Indonesia: Success of Social Media Use in Jakarta

Indonesia is the world's fourth largest population of Facebook user and the fifth largest for Twitter. A 2010 GlobalWebIndex survey found that eighty percent of internet users in Indonesia uses social media networks, compared to only fifty-five percent in the United States. Of Indonesia’s population of 240 million people, only 20% are connected to the internet, bringing about huge potential for further growth of a connected population.

In the recent few years there has been a surge of Indonesian politicians, many inspired by Obama’s victory in 2008, using social media to campaign and reach their target population. During the recent Gubernatorial election in Jakarta, which was rounded off in September 20, 2012, Indonesia saw the first time that social media has played a prominent role in a political campaign. Former Governor Fauzi Bowo were up against Joko Widodo (commonly known as Jokowi), the popular reformist mayor of the Central Java city of Solo. In a competitive and sometimes bitter race, both camps have sought to harness the country’s exploding social media base – with varied success. Jokowi’s team, which won a greater share of the votes in the first round, has run a savvy change-focused campaign, featuring public forums on Skype, upbeat YouTube videos, and an Angry Birds-style computer game in which Jokowi lobs exploding tomatoes at corrupt officials.

A few days prior to the election, there was an ostensibly unpaid show of support (paying people to attend campaign events is a common occurrence in Indonesia) for Jokowi. More than 2,000 Jokowi fans held a flash mob on Jakarta’s main thoroughfare, while Fauzi campaigned just 100 meters away. With professional photographers on hand, supporters danced to a One Direction song, with dubbed Indonesian lyrics highlighting the megacity’s many intractable problems like traffic congestion, flooding, and bribery in the public service. The spectacle finished with dancers removing their jackets to reveal Jokowi’s trademark red and blue-checkered shirt. The original Jokowi-One Direction video that inspired the dance has racked up more than a million views on YouTube since it was posted late last month.

Alongside the candidates’ campaigns, a lively discussion has played out online, with more than half a million tweets about the two candidates generated in one month over July and August. Despite social media having emerged as a new battleground in Indonesian politics, it has yet to translate into greater engagement on policy substance, or critical reflection on complex problems. While Jokowi’s town hall-style Skype discussions represent an exciting development, the rise of social media in the campaign has been marked more by the ugly exploitation of ethnic and religious issues.

Meanwhile, the state has struggled to keep up with the dynamics of this new online-based campaigning. Both the General Election Commission (KPU) and the Election Supervisory Committee (Panwaslu) stated they did not have the authority to supervise social media content, and campaign regulations do not yet contain provisions for regulating official campaigning via social media. The KPU, missing an important opportunity, has not taken advantage of social media for its voter education efforts in either round of the race.

It’s already clear that a noisy online campaign does not necessarily translate into a greater turnout at the ballot box. There has yet been proof that the impact of social media in Indonesia results in effective mobilization of citizens into political action. Yet, Jokowi’s ‘David vs Goliath’ win suggests implications of social media campaign for the approaching 2014 legislative and presidential elections are significant. At the very least, Indonesia can expect more polished campaigns with candidates who attempt to engage more actively with their citizens. Whether this engagement is able to move beyond superficial and tokenistic point scoring remains to be seen.