Mobile Phones as a Tool for Civil Resistance

Case studies from Serbia and Belarus

Fabien Miard

DigiActive Research Series, June 2009

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“Mobile communication is said to enhance the autonomy of

individuals, enabling them to set up their own connections, bypassing the mass media and the channels of communication controlled by institutions and organizations” Manuel Castells

The recent “Twitter Revolution” in Moldova (Morozov 2009a; Economist 2009; BBC 2009; Dagbladet 2009) has created a renewed interest in the role of new communication technologies in civil resistance and social protest activities. It is a new example in a growing list of events where such technologies played an important role in facilitating protests (Castells et al. 2007). Twitter and other microblogging platforms represent a new phenomenon because they easily work across different types of communication technologies such as instant messaging, blogging, and text messaging. This convergence also draws attention to the wide-spread use of mobile phones in civil resistance, a factor often overlooked by Internet enthusiasts. The impact of mobile telecommunications in political activism was at the center of my master thesis (Miard 2008), where I argued that the mobility and ubiquity associated with personal cell phones is a major advantage over Internet-based communication. Part of my work was to get acquainted with everyday ‘street use’ of mobile phones. To do this, I interviewed civil activists in both Serbia and Belarus. This R@D product summarizes some key insights from the interviews and links them to insights gained from the recent “Twitter Revolution”.1 Although the cases of Serbia and Belarus might initially seem similar because of their geographic proximity, struggles with dictatorial leaders, and historical Communist dominance, mobile phone use by activists in these countries is markedly different. Mobile phones were a critical tactical tool in bringing down Milosevic in 2000. However, only 8 years later, mobiles are less useful to anti-Lukashenka Belarusian activists in the present day because of the state’s increasingly effective surveillance of mobile communication.


The complete interviews are available in the appendix of my thesis (Miard 2008). 2


“The most important [situation] was the march from Novi Sad to

Belgrade on April 14th, 2000. That was a demo 100 percent operated through mobile phones” Ivan Marovic 2008 Originally a student movement, Otpor, which means ‘resistance’, turned political after the NATO bombings in Serbia in 1998, waging a political campaign against Slobodan Milosevic. The campaign eventually led to the intended outcome, and Milosevic stepped down and was later extradited to The Hague for trial. Otpor’s use of cell phones in their activities was reported by Radio Free Europe (2005) in response to the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine. Ukrainian activists were said to follow a path “already forged by the Serbian youth movement Otpor, whose members used coded short-text messaging on cell phones to coordinate their actions” (Radio Free Europe 2005). In the interview, Ivan Marovic – a founding member of Otpor and the person responsible for press and PR during the events in 2000 – unequivocally confirmed the importance of mobile phones in this movement. A particularly interesting aspect that surfaced in the interview was the fact that the Internet played a rather limited role because the Web was slow and not used a lot in Serbia in 2000. 2 Mobile phones, on the other hand, where very common according to Marovic: “[By] 2000, almost everybody had a mobile”. While the Internet was used for strategic communication – news, documents, etc. – the mobile phone was crucial for operational and tactical communication. For example, in order to transport small packages from one place to another, they would ask bus drivers to deliver them and immediately text or call the receiving party in the other town to pick up the deliveries. Marovic stated that cell phones were crucial for such operations. He also cited the use of mobiles when handling tasks in real time was critical. During a long march from Novi Sad to Belgrade in April 2000, the organizers had to coordinate tasks while walking. Food had to be delivered, supplied by volunteers from different towns. They also had to organize buses for those who could not walk anymore (the distance between the two Serbian cities is 80km). Last but not least, the welcome rally and press releases upon arrival in Belgrade needed to be prepared and coordinated. Marovic used up three cell phone batteries that night.

Marovic had feared too many questions about the Internet, only to discover, to his delight, that someone was finally interested in mobile phones. Earlier scholars had interviewed him with a focus on the role of the Internet, which he had little to say about.


Ivan Marovic confirmed some of my assumptions with regard to the relevance of mobile phones in immediate street action and mass mobilization. He also managed to highlight the aspect of logistics and how it can rely on mobile phone usage, which was partly novel to me. Otpor’s heydays now date a few years back and communication technologies have undergone rapid changes since 2000. To gain insight into a more recent situation, an additional interview was performed with a media activist from Belarus, a country that has yet to experience freedom of speech.

“Mobilization is not only about political conversations. It is about

normal communications with people, involving them in activities.” Pavel Marozau Two years ago, Pavel Marozau left Belarus to evade his own arrest by Belarusian authorities. The activists behind Third Way, an independent youth group, had just been charged with ‘insulting’ the president. In Belarus, this automatically means a guilty verdict, as President Lukashenka3 heads a Soviet-style police state. Pavel Marozau, who is in charge of the publication of antiLukashenka cartoons, was one of the last Third Way activists to still be in the country; all others had already left earlier. He has now found asylum in Estonia (Charter’97 2006). Third Way is much more than just a cartoonist’s website; their goal is nothing less than reforming and modernizing Belarusian society (Third Way 2008). Mission objectives are listed on their website, where one can also find specified tactical priorities such as up-to-date and safe communication and effective mobilization, two key issues in my thesis work (Miard 2008). It is Third Way’s active use of the newest communication technologies in a hostile environment that prompted me to interview Pavel Marozau in the first place. Government surveillance appears to be an overall issue in the case of Belarus, as is the need for safe communication. Pavel Marozau agrees that mobile phones are very important for his organization’s activities. However, he also adds that where possible, the use of mobile phones is being avoided because of ‘serious things’. Mobile communication can be very unsafe; interception by state authorities is especially common in the run-up phase to state elections. All Belarusian mobile network operators are under state control; no private company can own more than 49 percent of the shares (this has, however, been relaxed recently). It is very difficult, if not


I use the Belarusian transliteration here. The often used ‘Lukashenko’ is a Russian transliteration. 4

impossible, for mobile network operators to refuse to comply with requests for sensitive personal information by Belarusian authorities, such as calls, SMSes, etc.
“Mobiles are good during opposition actions for operative

coordination and reporting to media and say[ing] for example that you’ve been arrested.” Pavel Marozau Third Way has been using mobile phones to contact potential new recruits, but also for operative coordination, or media reporting — for example upon having been arrested. In the case of operative coordination, it is important to use coded language or not name places while talking on a mobile phone. Marozau describes a situation where he accidentally slipped the name of a previously agreed meeting place, a public square, while talking to an activist on his mobile phone. The consequence was swift: his fellow activist who was standing on that public square was arrested within 15 minutes. Another tactical strategy is to use reconnaissance activists in street demonstrations who report police movement, especially the crowd-control units called OMON. To do this, the reconnaissance activists use ‘clean’ mobile phones with SIM4 cards and phone IDs that have not yet been registered by the surveillance apparatus. 5 Mass SMS sending has also been used to mobilize Belarusians, with messages such as “People, come to October Square on 1st of September. Zhive Belarus!”6 Public expression of political opinion is, however, very difficult in Belarus. Police forces and secret service units usually quickly quash such attempts. Youth groups even revert to unconventional actions to gain attention while making it difficult for the government to justify counteraction, as, for example, in a ‘flash mob’ of young people doing nothing else than gathering publicly to eat ice cream (Rheingold 2006).

4 5

SIM stands for Subscriber Identity Module; these small smart cards are used to identify subscribers to mobile and data networks.

In order to do this, neutral people (as far away from the opposition activists) are asked to subscribe to up to 5 or 10 mobile phone contracts, providing them with the equal number of ’fresh’ SIM cards. Only recently have pre-paid cards been introduced in Belarus, somewhat simplifying this process. Phone identification numbers (IDs) can also be registered; Marozau pointed out that activists therefore occasionally reload their handsets’ software using illegal Russian hacker software. According to Marozau, the mobile phone numbers of around 1 million subscribers of the Belarusian operator Velcom were put on the web by hackers – twice so within a short period of time. This certainly helped for mass-sending SMS, but it was due to exceptional circumstances. Sending mass SMSes to random numbers would be another feasible strategy; Marozau did, however, dismiss it as being too expensive.


The Belarusian authorities are, of course, not foolish. Marozau explained in the interview how they are well aware of the power of mass SMS and have made use of it themselves, especially prior to the presidential elections or the 2004 referendum. They routinely modify the opposition’s messages, or just spread the opposite message. The Belarusian government has also created its own, well-funded youth organization called BRSM. It also uses mass SMSes and other communication strategies, thus copying the opposition movement’s tactics. When asking Pavel Marozau about mobile phones as facilitators of logistics, he concurred that it could sometimes be useful, but that Third Way limited their use for safety reasons. In addition to tapped phone calls, there is also the risk of localization; with today’s technology, it is possible to localize the position of a mobile phone and thus its user even when the handset is idle. The accuracy is 50-100 meters, according to Marozau. It has become common to simply switch off the phone or even remove the battery to be on the safe side.

A noticeable change between the two cases seems to be safety concerns. Although Ivan Marovic briefly mentioned some concern in the interview – for example, taking the battery out of mobile phones was already an issue for some Otpor activists – it did not appear to be such a major concern compared to today’s activists in Belarus. Third Way activists seem to be much more concerned about safety than the young activists in Serbia were a few years earlier. It appears that government agencies have stepped up their know-how in dealing with mobile telecommunications as a security risk, both technically and tactically. One may see this as an indication that the mobile phone is indeed a potentially powerful and dangerous tool. Due to this, today’s activists in Belarus appear to be reluctant to rely too much on this single technology, despite the availability of useful Russian hacker software to manipulate the handsets and hamper state surveillance. On the other hand, with the evolution of the Internet - including cheap, encrypted Internet telephony (VoIP, such as Skype) - they also have more communication alternatives than Ivan Marovic and his fellow activists had in 2000, when access to the Internet was rare in Serbia and still relied on slow dial-up connections. The Moldovan activists’ recent experience with Twitter has drawn attention to further innovations. Autocratic governments have shown an increasing unwillingness to let crowds of protesters bypass their control over communication. A very effective way to counter well-organized, mobilewielding protesters is to simply shut down mobile networks. An even better and less economically damaging and unpopular measure is to do this punctually, limited to certain areas and time periods. This strategy has reportedly been employed for example in Minsk by the


Belarusian government, in Tibet by the Chinese authorities, and in the recent case of Moldova (Morozov 2009a; NZZ 2008). In order to deal with this, protesters in Moldova simply left the areas where rallies took place to post updates on Twitter. Another interesting result was that Twitter had a much bigger impact outside of the Twittersphere rather than within, simply by feeding blogs, social networks and mobile phones all over the world7 with content. Both these aspects indicate that the public square – where riots and rallies usually take place – “may no longer be the focal point of organizational efforts” (Morozov 2009b). In a sense, street protests can nowadays rely on a backbone of support that cannot be dealt with by simply shutting down mobile antennas and dispatching crowd-control units, and such events seem thus harder to control. Today, the situation in many developing countries has more similarities with Serbia in 2000 than with Belarus in 2008, because access to the Internet is often limited due to social and infrastructural issues, while mobile phones are much more common. With regard to the advanced mobile telecommunications surveillance methods and tactical countermeasures developed by tech-savvy regimes, this puts the usefulness of mobile phones for civil resistance in question, as the case of Belarus indicates. However, Moldova’s “Twitter Revolution” suggests two novelties that require further analysis: Firstly, the proliferation of various converging means of communication that are established in many people’s everyday lives, such as instant messaging, VoIP, blogging, microblogging, email, texting etc. seem to partly compensate for activists’ increasing safety issues with regard to the sole use of mobile phones, which is the most widely used modern communication technology as of today. It is harder to track and censor information that originates from multiple cross-border sources at very high frequency, as even the tech-savvy Chinese government had to learn (Wall Street Journal 2008). Secondly, the case of Moldova indicates that civil resistance will also be able to take advantage of the Web in places with poor Internet penetration and few users because microblogging allows the Web and mobile networks to converge in terms of information diffusion and feedback internationalization. 8 Evgeny Morozov (2009c) subsumes these innovations very pointedly: Activists now have the “ability to keep the story in the international news by ‘hijacking’ the Twitter conversations” (even for obscure countries such as Moldova). This is even further increased by the ability to have friends and family abroad join in and the “availability of much more user-generated content directly from the field”, which can be fed into different local and global media outlets such as blogs, social networks, YouTube, newspapers, and mobile phones.
As Morozov (2009b) points out, a good network is one that connects to enough nodes with connections of their own. This explains why Twitter, which is not widely used in Moldova, was able to have such an impact.

Besides the well-known there are also other fast-growing platforms such as the web-sms hybrid system and the location aware service



BBC (2009). ‘Moldova’s ‘Twitter revolutionary’ speaks out’. April 25th. Available online: http:// [May 2009] Castells, Manuel, Mireia Fernández-Ardèvol, Jack Qiu Linchuan and Araba Sey (2007). Mobile Communication and Society. Cambrigde/London: MIT Press. Charter’97 (2006). ‘Author of Cartoons About Lukashenka Seeks Political Asylum in Estonia.’ November 23rd. Available online: estonia [September 2008] Dagbladet (2009). ‘Lager revolusjon gjennom Twitter’. April 8th. Available online: http:// 5672954/ [May 2009] In Norwegian Economist (2009). ‘Moldova burning’. April 8th. Available online: world/europe/displaystory.cfm?story_id=13447119 [May 2009] Miard, Fabien (2008). “Call for Power: Mobile phones as facilitators of political activism”. Oslo: University of Oslo. Master thesis. Available online: [December 2008] Morozov, Evgeny (2009a). ‘Moldova’s Twitter Revolution’. April 7th. Available online: http:// [May 2009] Morozov, Evgeny (2009b). ‘Moldova’s Twitter revolution is NOT a myth’. April 10th. Available online moldovas_twitter_revolution_is_not_a_myth [May 2009] Morozov, Evgeny (2009c). ‘More analysis of Twitter’s role in Moldova’. April 7th. Available online: more_analysis_of_twitters_role_in_moldova [May 2009] NZZ (2008). ‘China will in Tibet hart durchgreifen.’ March 15th. Available online: http:// zahlreiche_tote_bei_den_protesten_in_tibet_1.689701.html [April 2008] In German Radio Free Europe (2005). ‘Russia: FSB Hoping To Put Revolution On Hold?’ Available online: [July 2008] Rheingold, Howard (2006). ‘Ice Cream Politics: flash mob in Belarus’. October 3rd. Available online: [September 2008] Third Way (2008). ‘Freedom. Opportunity. Success! Third Way Internet Community.’ Available online: [July 2008] Wall Street Journal (2008). ‘Chinese Bloggers Score a Victory Against the Government’. July 7th. Available online: [May 2009]


About Fabien Miard

Fabien Miard has a M.A. in Political Science from the University of Oslo, Norway, and a B.A. in Political Science and Scandinavian Studies from the University of Zurich, Switzerland. The curriculum of his master program focused on development studies, peace and conflict studies, and political economy. His master thesis analyzed the role of mobile phones in political protest movements using both qualitative and quantitative approaches. He is now working as a Key Account Manager for the French and German-speaking markets at Masterstudies, an international webmarketing company that does multilingual search engine optimization and profile filtering for universities and schools.

About Research@DigiActive (R@D)

Research@DigiActive (R@D) is a project of DigiActive, an organization that encourages technology use by grassroots political activists around the world. The purpose of  R@D  is to produce applied, thought-provoking, actionable research at the cutting edge of Digital Activism. It seeks to highlight and disseminate qualitative and quantitative studies in the by publishing short papers by promising scholars. To submit a paper or get more information, please contact our Director of Applied Research, Patrick Meier by email at Patrick [at]

About DigiActive

DigiActive is an all-volunteer organization dedicated to helping grassroots activists around the world use the Internet and mobile phones to increase their impact. Its goal is a world of activists made more powerful and more effective through the use of digital technology. DigiActive pursues this goal through several spheres of action, including a blog of digital activism best practices, an interactive map which serves as a visual database of digital activism, the research program R@D, and digital activism trainings. Learn more and get involved at


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