How SMS Swung a Parliamentary Election in Spain
Excerpts from this case study were originally published in "Digital Activism Decoded: The New Mechanics of Change" edited by Mary Joyce.
On March 11, 2004, days before national parliamentary elections in Spain, four trains were bombed at Madrid train stations, killing nearly 200 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 incumbent Popular Party (PP) publicly stated that the Basque terrorist group ETA was behind the bombing. By the end of the day, however, evidence pointed toward a jihadist cell inspired by the Islamist terrorist organization Al Qaeda. 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.
In light of the government's actions—they were essentially lying to citizens—what would Spaniards do to influence and alter the direction of the elections?
Many were outraged that the government was choosing to blame Basque terrorists for Al Qaeda’s work, believing that the PP was trying to cover up evidence. Opposition leadership 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 manipulation of information, began to call for demonstrations.
THE TOOLS AND TACTICS
According to blogger Andre Serranho, the first SMS message was sent on March 13, the day before the election, and simply stated, “The government lied. Pass it on.” Other messages began circulating, such as: “We want to know before we vote,” “Today at 18 at PP Genova no political signs demanding truthful information pass it on,” and “Information poisoning at 18:00 PP pass it on.”
No one has been able to identify the original source(s) of the messages, and 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 p.m. on March 13, more than 10,000 people had gathered in front of the PP headquarters in Madrid.
Serranho notes that the majority of Spaniards he spoke to acknowledged that they had forwarded text messages to their contact lists upon receiving them. This created a snowball effect, with thousands of texts being passed around asking Spaniards to vote for the Socialist Party and to demonstrate against the Popular Party. At the time, Spain had a mobile penetration rate of 94 percent, indicating that many residents of the country had mobile phones capable of sending and receiving texts; March 13 saw a 20 percent increase in text messages; March 14, election day, saw a rise of 40 percent.
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.
This smart mobbing for the vote in Spain demonstrates the power of persuasive text messages. It can be assumed that many Spaniards who received text messages trusted the sender of the message enough to believe the accusation that the government was lying, and that the best response was to protest the cover-up and to vote for the Socialist Party. As Serranho notes, “This was the first time when the results of a national election could be ultimately traced to the activity of a minority of well-connected individuals, which originated a snowball effect: the alpha-users and their communities arrived in politics.”
Additionally, the timing was right. If the Madrid train bombings had not occurred just days before the election, it seems unlikely that the vote would have turned in favor of the Socialists. Emotions were running high following the bombings, and the government’s attempted cover-up fueled the actions of many Spaniards.
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