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The "Flash Mob" Gambit

Are South Koreans demonstrating a new model of citizen action?

When Howard Rheingold wrote about “smart mobs” five years ago, many people assumed that that the rapidly assembled Internet “mobs” would be a marginal phenomenon confined to cyberspace. But as a series of major protests in South Korea have demonstrated over the past month, digital technologies are helping large masses of people to coordinate their actions in highly sophisticated and powerful ways. Their political will suddenly matters.

People are using cell phones, text-messaging, laptops, camcorders, wifi and other tools to communicate about breaking events in near-real time. As people learn of events and change their behaviors accordingly, “flash mobs” materialize. Could the flash mob represent a new model of citizen action?

Photo by Oipul & Co., via Flickr, licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND license. http://www.flickr.com/photos/oipul/2458941513/

The South Korean protests have been the largest flash mobs ever assembled. They arose after Korean President Lee Myung-Bak proposed easing import restrictions on beef from the United States, ostensibly because the safety of U.S. meat is no longer a concern. But many Koreans fear that animal feed practices and less stringent meat inspection standards in the U.S. could result in their contracting “mad cow disease,” the brain-destroying illness that has afflicted cows – and people who eat them – in Great Britain. Koreans also associate the meat-import policy change to a more generalized sense of corruption in the South Korean government.

Historically, citizens have faced barriers to publicly expressing their collective will; they usually have to rely upon the corporate news media, elected representatives, advocacy groups and other proxies, many of whom are notoriously remote from “the street.” But in Seoul, Korea, one of the most wired cities in the world, more than 10,000 people turned out in the streets of Seoul for a massive candlelight demonstration.

It was largely a tech-driven event, both in getting people to show up and in the news coverage that resulted. In many instances, protesters became journalists, bypassing the conservative-minded news media that typically marginalize democratic challenges to the political establishment. From Futureizekorea.com:

Protesters equipped with laptops and videos cameras have been often witnessed during the rallies over a month. Some of them even donning headsets with microphones to anchor their coverage.

They sometimes work in teams of two to four, allotting each other different tasks; one in charge of gaining footage, the other sending it out via the internet.

What has made the live broadcasting easier is WiBro, a wireless broadband Internet technology being developed by the telecoms industry in Korea, one of the world’s most wired nations where more than three-quarters of homes have high-speed Internet access….

“Initially, I was just one of the participants,” he [one protester] said, holding a notebook and sporting an earphone and a microphone.

“Many journalists were there, but they did not report things that I thought were very important. Scenes like police firing water cannons and wielding shields did not make it onto TV…”

Following one protest, OnMyNews, the citizen-written newspaper that is one of the most influential news outlets in the country, received record Web traffic for its video coverage of the protests.

South Korea is an hospitable environment for citizen-journalism and flash mobs because the country has extensive wireless broadband coverage and its citizens are technology fanatics. (Read, for example, this account on Rheingold’s Smart Mobs blog. )

Photo by oceandesetoiles, via Flickr, licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. http://www.flickr.com/photos/ocean_of_stars/2619930713/

What is interesting is the political implications of widespread citizen access to communications tools that they can control and use themselves. When large protest crowds have the capacity to communicate among themselves in real time, and report the news themselves from their own perspective, a profound power shift occurs. The Korea IT Times reports that demonstrators are becoming more innovative and strategic in confronting the government. Some are calling for the impeachment of President Lee Myung-Bak:

Protest crowds are also becoming more organized, with tough, military-looking citizens forming a buffer between police and protestors. Volunteer medical workers are also organizing themselves and seeing over protest crowds. The protests also include a wider range of participation, with children as young as eight and grandparents as old as eighty being reported there. The flash mobs are growing, and becoming more intelligent. The tone of the protests is changing now, after one month. Protestors are becoming bolder, with a group of 20,000 marching up the road to Cheong Wa Dae, the official residence of Korean President Lee Myung-bak on Saturday night. They were stopped with water cannons after vandalizing and passing riot police busses set up as a barrier.

Some say that the indifference of Lee Myung-bak, who was elected in the largest landslide in Korean democratic history just three months ago, is the larger issue now. There are rumors that the President will let go some of his cabinet as a sacrifice in an attempt to appease the flash mobs. At the time of writing, it is not sure what the outcome will be, but what is sure is that the Internet, as a connecting and communicating force beyond any other, has enabled the quick and efficient organization and sustainability of this month-long protest. And perhaps only the Internet can put it to rest.

The political establishment and news media are sure to condemn the Internet as a tool for spreading unfounded rumors and unwarranted fears. But can we say that governments, TV networks and venerable newspapers are so scrupulous in accurately portraying the dangers posed by, say, Saddam Hussein or the prisoners being held in Guantanamo? It is a well-established fact that government abuses flourish in secrecy, which is why many politicians tend to resist openness and citizen accountability.

Thomas Jefferson was eager for a First Amendment to protect the (citizen-based) press of his time because he knew it would help keep power honest and accountable. He put it rather well: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter.”