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Last Updated: Saturday, 1 April 2006, 11:24 GMT 12:24 UK
The Philippines' mobile politics
By Sarah Toms
BBC News, Manila

More than a third of Filipinos have mobile phones. In a country where many live in poverty, they are often seen as a cheap way to stay in touch. But for some the mobile is also being used as a powerful political and social tool.

People sending text messages in the Philippines
Filipinos have some of the fastest thumbs in the East

It is 3am and my mobile phone beeps.  

In my groggy state I take a look and I am not surprised to read a text message warning of impending doom and disaster in the Philippines.

It is not unusual to get a text this early or in droves at any time of the day or night. 

They warn of coup attempts or bombing campaigns. Usually, they are completely false. 

Some are political jokes, others are spiritual. Many seek support for protests, sow wild rumours or propose a scam. 

Whether they are commuters, cinema-goers or even mourners at a funeral, people here always seem to find time to send texts.

And Filipinos have some of the fastest thumbs in the East.

Ringing headache

Propaganda about unrest spreads quickly as people just cannot resist passing it on.

The difficulty and expense of getting a landline in the Philippines explains why there are so many mobile users.

Malicious messages can create unease in an already fragile democracy
And because text messages are so cheap, at least 200 million are sent here every day.

No wonder the country has a reputation as the world's text capital.

Texting is so prevalent that even the central bank governor and other senior officials answer media enquiries by tapping out a reply on their mobiles.

But it is also become a ringing headache for many recipients. 

'Disinformation'

Most mobile users are anonymous because they use pre-paid phone cards, which can be bought without giving a name and address.

With the origin unknown, malicious messages can create unease in an already fragile democracy.

Texting in the Philippines is such a rumour mill that it can turn a shred of disinformation into a national talking point, sometimes one that forces the government to comment.

When a message went around recently that the head of the armed forces had resigned, the rumour grew so large that he felt compelled to deny it.

The greater the political tensions, the more the wild rumours circulate and the more the messages flood in
Analysts say text message rumours proliferate because some people wish to portray themselves as being in the know about matters of national security.

Others pass them along believing they are helping friends and family by warning them.

Whatever the reason, I have received false text messages of disasters such as a tsunami that was about to hit the south of the country and a bomb set to go off at a popular shopping mall.

Another I got claimed President Gloria Arroyo had died from a strange disease.

Political accusations

Philippine President Gloria Arroyo
Rumours about President Arroyo have been spread by mobile phone
The power of text messaging reached its peak in 2001.

A lightning campaign rallied hundreds of thousands of people to the streets of Manila for a popular uprising that forced President Joseph Estrada from office.

Mrs Arroyo, his successor as president, is now the target.

The greater the political tensions, the more the wild rumours circulate and the more the messages flood in.

President Arroyo has been struggling with record-low popularity. She is accused of corruption and rigging the election in 2004, which she denies.

The accusations are based largely on wiretaps of phone calls in which Mrs Arroyo is allegedly speaking to an election official about ensuring her victory by one million votes.

One message I got told me how the president had won an Oscar for her televised apology to the nation for talking to the election official, whose nickname is Garci.

Even the snippet of the alleged discussion was set to a techno beat and turned into a hugely popular mobile ring-tone known as "Hello Garci".

Mrs Arroyo survived an impeachment attempt last year but the messages calling for her removal keep on coming.

Map of the Philippines showing the capital Manila
The warnings are often attributed to reliable intelligence sources and based on some grain of truth. That can make it difficult - at least initially - to tell whether they are genuine or not.

Sometimes they are just political dirty tricks by the administration and the opposition, leaving me to think the only conspiracy is the one depriving me of sleep.

But since I have been living in Manila, I have witnessed a very real mutiny by soldiers - which ended up failing - and a couple of alleged plots to overthrow the government.

That is why at three in the morning I turn on the light and read the text messages, however unlikely they might seem.  

Covering the news in the Philippines, I just cannot afford to take any chances.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 1 April, 2006 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

SEE ALSO:
Country profile: The Philippines
03 Jan 06 |  Country profiles
Arroyo admits election phone call
27 Jun 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Philippine tape in ringtone craze
22 Jun 05 |  Asia-Pacific


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