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SMS Riot: Transmitting Race on a Sydney Beach, December 2005

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My message is this in regard to SMS messages and swarming crowds; this is ludicrous behaviour; it is unAustralian. We all share this wonderful country. (NSW Police Assistant Commissioners Mark Goodwin, quoted in Kennedy)

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The cops hate and fear the swarming packs of Lebanese who respond when some of their numbers are confronted, mobilising quickly via mobile phones and showing open contempt for Australian law. All this is the real world, as distinct from the world preferred by ideological academics who talk about “moral panic” and the oppression of Muslims. They will see only Australian racism as the problem. (Sheehan)

The Politics of Transmission

3On 11 December 2005, as Sydney was settling into early summer haze, there was a race riot on the popular Cronulla beach in the city’s southern suburbs. Hundreds of people, young men especially, gathered for a weekend protest. Their target and pretext were visitors from the culturally diverse suburbs to the west, and the need to defend their women and beaches in the face of such unwelcome incursions and behaviours. In the ensuing days, there were violent raids and assaults criss-crossing back and forth across Sydney’s beaches and suburbs, involving almost farcical yet deadly earnest efforts to identify, respectively, people of “anglo” or “Middle Eastern” appearance (often specifically “Lebanese”) and to threaten or bash them. At the very heart of this state of siege and the fear, outrage, and sadness that gripped those living in Sydney were the politics of transmission. The spark that set off this conflagration was widely believed to have been caused by the transmission of racist and violent “calls to arms” via mobile text messages.

4Predictably perhaps media outlets sought out experts on text messaging and cell phone culture for commentary, including myself and most mainstream media appeared interested in portraying a fascination for texting and reinforcing its pivotal role in the riots. In participating in media interviews, I found myself torn between wishing to attest to the significance and importance of cell phone culture and texting, on the one hand (or thumb perhaps), while being extremely sceptical about its alleged power in shaping these unfolding events, on the other — not to mention being disturbed about the ethical implications of what had unfolded. In this article, I wish to discuss the subject of transmission and the power of mobile texting culture, something that attracted much attention elsewhere — and to which the Sydney riots offer a fascinating and instructive lesson.

5My argument runs like this. Mobile phone culture, especially texting, has emerged over the past decade, and has played a central role in communicative and cultural practice in many countries and contexts as scholars have shown (Glotz and Bertschi; Harper, Palen and Taylor). Among other features, texting often plays a significant, if not decisive, role in co-ordinated as well as spontaneous social and political organization and networks, if not, on occasion, in revolution. However, it is important not to over-play the role, significance and force of such texting culture in the exercise of power, or the formation of collective action and identities (whether mobs, crowds, masses, movements, or multitudes). I think texting has been figured in such a hyperbolic and technological determinist way, especially, and ironically, through how it has been represented in other media (print, television, radio, and online). The difficulty then is to identify the precise contribution of mobile texting in organized and disorganized social networks, without the antimonies conferred alternatively by dystopian treatments (such as moral panic) or utopian ones (such as the technological sublime) — something which I shall try to elucidate in what follows.

On the Beach Again

6Largely caught unawares and initially slow to respond, the New South Wales state government responded with a massive show of force and repression. 2005 had been marked by the state and Federal enactment of draconian terror laws. Now here was an opportunity for the government to demonstrate the worth of the instruments and rationales for suppression of liberties, to secure public order against threats of a more (un)civil than martial order. Outflanking the opposition party on law-and-order rhetoric once again, the government immediately formulated new laws to curtail accused and offender’s rights (Brown). The police “locked” down whole suburbs — first Cronulla, then others — and made a show of policing all beaches north and south (Sydney Morning Herald).

7The race riots were widely reported in the international press, and, not for the first time (especially since the recent Redfern and Macquarie Fields), the city’s self-image of a cosmopolitan, multicultural nation (or in Australian Prime Minister John Howard’s prim and loaded terms, a nation “relaxed and comfortable”) looked like a mirage. Debate raged on why the riots occurred, how harmony could be restored and what the events signified for questions of race and identity — the latter most narrowly construed in the Prime Minister’s insistence that the riots did not reflect underlying racism in Australia (Dodson, Timms and Creagh). There were suggestions that the unrest was rather at base about the contradictions and violence of masculinity, some two-odd decades after Puberty Blues — the famous account of teenage girls growing up on the (Cronulla) Shire beaches. Journalists agonized about whether the media amounted to reporter or amplifier of tensions.

8In the lead-up to the riots, at their height, and in their wake, there was much emphasis on the role mobile text messages played in creating the riots and sustaining the subsequent atmosphere of violence and racial tension (The Australian; Overington and Warne-Smith). Not only were text messages circulating in the Sydney area, but in other states as well (Daily Telegraph). The volume of such text messages and emails also increased in the wake of the riot (certainly I received one personally from a phone number I did not recognise). New messages were sent to exhort Lebanese-Australians and others to fight back. Those decrying racism, such as the organizers of a rally, pointedly circulated text messages, hoping to spread peace.

9Media commentators, police, government officials, and many others held such text messages directly and centrally responsible for organizing the riot and for the violent scuffles that followed:

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The text message hate mail that inspired 5000 people to attend the rally at Cronulla 10 days ago demonstrated to the police the power of the medium. The retaliation that followed, when gangs marauded through Maroubra and Cronulla, was also co-ordinated by text messaging (Davies).

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It is rioting for a tech-savvy generation. Mobile phones are providing the call to arms for the tribes in the race war dividing Sydney. More than 5000 people turn up to Cronulla on Sunday … many were drawn to the rally, which turned into a mob, by text messages on their mobiles (Hayes and Kearney).

12Such accounts were crucial to the international framing of the events as this report from The Times in London illustrates:

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In the days leading up to the riot racist text messages had apparently been circulating calling upon concerned “white” Australians to rally at Cronulla to defend their beach and women. Following the attacks on the volunteer lifeguards, a mobile telephone text campaign started, backed up by frenzied discussions on weblogs, calling on Cronulla locals to rally to protect their beach. In response, a text campaign urged youths from western Sydney to be at Cronulla on Sunday to protect their friends (Maynard).

14There were calls upon the mobile companies to intercept and ban such messages, with industry spokespeople pointing out text messages were usually only held for twenty-four hours and were in many ways more difficult to intercept than it was to tap phone calls (Burke and Cubby).

Mobs and Messages

15I think there are many reasons to suggest that the transmission of text messages did constitute a moral panic (what I’ve called elsewhere a “mobile panic”; see Goggin), pace columnist Paul Sheehan. Notably the wayward texting drew a direct and immediate response from the state government, with legislative changes that included provisions allowing the confiscation of cell phones and outlawing sending, receipt or keeping of racist or inflammatory text messages. For some days police proceeded to stop cars and board buses and demand to inspect mobiles, checking and reading text messages, arresting at least one person for being responsible for transmitting banned text messages.

16However, there is another important set of ideas adduced by commentators to explain how people came together to riot in Sydney, taking their cue from Howard Rheingold’s 2002 book Smart Mobs, a widely discussed and prophetic text on social revolution and new technologies. Rheingold sees text messaging as the harbinger of such new, powerful forms of collectivity, studying emergent uses around the world. A prime example he uses to illustrate the “power of the mobile many” is the celebrated overthrow of President Joseph Estrada of the Philippines in January 2001:

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President Joseph Estrada of the Philippines became the first head of state in history to lose power to a smart mob. More than 1 million Manila residents, mobilized and coordinated by waves of text messages, assembled … Estrada fell. The legend of “Generation Txt” was born (Rheingold 157-58).

18Rheingold is careful to emphasize the social as much as technical nature of this revolution, yet still sees such developments leading to “smart mobs”. As with his earlier, prescient book Virtual Community (Rheingold 1993) did for the Internet, so has Smart Mobs compellingly fused and circulated a set of ideas about cell phones and the pervasive, wearable and mobile technologies that are their successors.

19The received view of the overthrow of the Estrada government is summed up in a remark attributed to Estrada himself: “I was ousted by a coup d’text” (Pertierra et al. ch. 6). The text-toppling of Estrada is typically attributed to “Generation Txt”, underlining the power of text messaging and the new social category which marks it, and has now passed into myth. What is less well-known is that the overriding role of the cell phone in the Estrada overthrow has been challenged.

20In the most detailed study of text messaging and subjectivity in the Philippines, which reviewed accounts of the events of the Estrada overthrow, as well as conducting interviews with participants, Pertierra et al. discern in EDSA2 a “utopian vision of the mobile phone that is characteristic of ‘discourses of sublime technology’”:

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It focuses squarely on the mobile phone, and ignores the people who used it … the technology is said to possess a mysterious force, called “Text Power” ... it is the technology that does things — makes things happen — not the people who use it. (Pertierra et al. ch. 6)

22Given the recrudescence of the technological sublime in digital media (on which see Mosco) the detailed examination of precise details and forms of agency and coordination using cell phones is most instructive. Pertierra et al. confirm that

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the cell phone did play an important role in EDSA2 (the term given to the events surrounding the downfall of Estrada). That role, however, was not the one for which it has usually been praised in the media since the event — namely, that of crowd-drawer par excellence … less than half of our survey respondents who took part in People Power 2 noted that text messaging influenced them to go. If people did attend, it was because they were persuaded to by an ensemble of other reasons … (2002: ch. 6)

24Instead, they argue, the significance of the cell phone lay

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firstly, in the way it helped join people who disapproved of Pres. Estrada in a network of complex connectivity … Secondly, the mobile phone was instrumental as an organizational device … In the hands of activists and powerbrokers from politics, the military, business groups and civil society, the mobile phone becomes a “potent communications tool” … (Pertierra et al. 2002: ch. 6)

26What this revisionist account of the Estrada coup underscores is that careful research and analysis is required to understand how SMS is used and what it signifies. Indeed it is worth going further to step back from either the celebratory or minatory discourses on the cell phone and its powerful effects, and reframe this set of events as very much to do with the mutual construction of society and technology, in which culture is intimately involved. This involves placing both the technology of text messaging and the social and political forces manifested in this uprising in a much wider setting. For instance, in his account of the Estrada crisis Vicente L. Rafael terms the tropes of text messaging and activism evident in the discourses surrounding it as:

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a set of telecommunicative fantasies among middle-class Filipinos … [that] reveal certain pervasive beliefs of the middle classes … in the power of communication technologies to transmit messages at a distance and in their own ability to possess that power (Rafael 399).

28For Rafael, rather than possessing instrinsic politics in its own right, text messaging here is about a “media politics (understood in both senses of the phrase: the politics of media systems, but also the inescapable mediation of the political) [that] reveal the unstable workings of Filipino middle-class sentiments” (400).

“Little Square of Light”

29Doubtless there are emergent cultural and social forms created in conjunction with new technologies, which unfreeze and open up (for a time) social relations. As my discussion of the Estrada “coup d’text” shows, however, the dynamics of media, politics and technology in any revolution or riot need to be carefully traced.

30A full discussion of mobile media and the Sydney uprising will need to wait for another occasion. However, it is worth noting that the text messages in question to which the initial riot had been attributed, were actually read out on one of the country’s highest-rating and most influential talk-radio programs. The contents of such messages had also been detailed in print media, especially tabloids, and been widely discussed (McLellan, Marr). What remains unknown and unclear, however, is the actual use of text messages and cell phones in the conceiving, co-ordination, and improvisational dynamics of the riots, and affective, cultural processing of what occurred.

31Little retrospective interpretation at all has emerged in the months since the riots, but it certainly felt as if the police and state’s over-reaction, and the arrival of the traditionally hot and lethargic Christmas — combined with the underlying structures of power and feeling to achieve the reinstitution of calm, or rather perhaps the habitual, much less invisible, expression of whiteness as usual. The policing of the crisis had certainly been fuelled by the mobile panic, but setting law enforcement the task of bringing those text messages to book was much like asking them to catch the wind.

32For analysts, as well as police, the novel and salience appearance of texting also has a certain lure. Yet in concentrating on the deadly power of the cell phone to conjure up a howling or smart mob, or in the fascination with the new modes of transmission of mobile devices, it is important to give credit to the formidable, implacable role of media and cultural representations more generally, in all this, as they are transmitted, received, interpreted and circulated through old as well as new modes, channels and technologies.