From Our Book: How Mobile Activism Turned an Election in Spain

NOTE: On June 1st we’ll be posting a free downloadable copy of our new book Digital Activism Decoded and on July 1st the paper version will go on sale at For the next two months we’ll be posting brief excerpts from all the chapters in the book. To learn more, visit our book page.

Today’s excerpt, by Brannon Cullum, a recent graduate of Georgetown’s CCT program, is from a chapter on digital activism devices, specifically the use of mobile phones. This selection presents an excellent case study of mobile activism from 2004. Though many case studies in the field are told as isolated narratives, they still form the basis of our knowledge of digital activism phenomena.

…The use of mobile phones during the 2004 general elections in Spain illustrates how ordinary citizens can shift the direction of an election. On March 11, 2004, days before national parliamentary elections, three trains were bombed at a Madrid train station, killing 192 people and injuring hundreds more. In the immediate aftermath of the bombing and before any evidence had surfaced linking any specific terrorist organization to the event, the governing Popular Party (PP) publicly stated that the Basque terrorist

group ETA was behind the bombing. By the end of the day, the Islamist terrorist organization Al Qaeda had claimed responsibility for the act. The Spanish government, known for taking a hard stance against the Basque group, continued to assert that ETA was culpable, in part because making the Basque terrorists appear responsible would benefit PP in the upcoming elections against the Socialist Party. Many Spaniards were outraged that the government was choosing to blame Basque terrorists for Al

Qaeda’s work and believed that the PP was trying to cover up evidence that linked Al Qaeda to the bombings. Opposition leaders believed that Al Qaeda targeted Spain because of Prime Minister

Jose Maria Aznar’s support of the war in Iraq and that Aznar was downplaying the role of Al Qaeda in an effort to improve his party’s chance in the election. Citizens, agitated by the apparent manipulation of information, began to call for demonstrations to express their mistrust of the government.

According to blogger Andre Serranho, the first SMS message was sent March 13, the day before the election, and simply stated, “The government lied. Pass it on.” Other messages soon began

circulating, such as:

18:00 PP head office Genova St. no parties silence for the truth. Information poisoning at 18:00 PP Genova pass it on.

We want to know before we vote.

The truth now, stop the manipulation, your war, our dead. Pass it on!

No one has been able to identify the source(s) of the texts. The Socialist Party has vehemently denied responsibility. Spain has an official ban on political demonstrations in the 24 hours prior to any election. Activists and concerned citizens ignored the ban and gathered anyway. By 11:00 p.m., more than ten thousand people had gathered in front of the PP headquarters in Madrid. In Serranho’s account of what transpired on March 13 and 14, he notes that the majority of Spaniards he spoke to acknowledged

that they had forwarded text messages to their contact lists. Spain had a mobile penetration rate of 94 percent, indicating that most residents of the country had mobile phones capable of sending 64 Digital Activism Decoded and receiving texts; March 13 saw a 20 percent increase in text messages, March 14, election day, saw a rise of 40 percent. Thousands of texts were passed around asking Spaniards to vote for the Socialist Party and to demonstrate against the Popular Party.

These tactics proved successful. The large size of the group that gathered at PP headquarters showed how many people were upset with the incumbent party. In a surprising turn, the Socialist Party defeated the PP at the polls, with turnout for the election estimated at 77 percent—an 8 percent increase from the previous election.

Thus was demonstrated the power of persuasive text messages. It can be posited that many Spaniards who received text messages trusted the sender enough to believe the accusation against the government and decided that the best way to protest was to vote for the opposition party.

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