Thursday, October 02, 2014


Transmission

Five Notable Text Messages That Made The News

British engineer Neil Papworth sent the first-ever SMS, or text message, 20 years ago.
British engineer Neil Papworth sent the first-ever SMS, or text message, 20 years ago.
On December 3, 1992, 22-year-old British engineer Neil Papworth sent the first ever text message from his computer to a friend’s phone containing the words “Merry Christmas.”

Twenty years later, the trillions of text messages -- also known as SMSs, for short message service -- sent around the world generate annual revenues of $112 billion.

And every so often, one of them makes the news. From a misinterpreted text that sparked rumors of Margaret Thatcher's death to an SMS by the Egyptian government sent during the uprisings of 2011, here are some of the text messages to have made news in recent years:

1. From the land of communications firm Nokia came one of the most notable resignations of a high-ranking government official as a result of a texting scandal. In April 2008, Ilkka Kanerva, Finland’s foreign minister, was sacked after newspapers published suggestive text messages the minister had sent to Johanna Tukiainen, then a 29-year-old leader of the Scandinavian Dolls erotic dance troupe. The 64-year-old minister initially said that the text messages were related to Tukiainen's performance at his 60th birthday party.

2. Government officials' private texts can sometimes lead to public confusion. In November 2009, Canadian Transport Minister John Baird sent a text message containing three words: “Thatcher has died.” Although Baird was referring to the passing of his 16-year-old cat, the "news" of the then-84-year-old former U.K. prime minister's death quickly spread. An aide to Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Dimitri Soudas, also reportedly began preparing an official statement mourning the death of Britain’s Iron Lady. After he was told that Thatcher was alive and well, Soudas reportedly said, “If the cat wasn’t dead, I’d have killed it by now.”

3. On July 22, 2011, after bombing government buildings in Oslo, a heavily armed Norwegian, Anders Breivik, hunted down and killed scores of people at a youth camp on the island of Utoya. Sixteen-year-old Julie Bremnes, one of the teenagers stranded on the island, began texting her mom updates as the crisis unfolded. The 40-message text exchange began: “Mummy, tell the police that they must be quick. People are dying here!" Bremnes initially called her mother, urging her to contact the police. But her mother then asked her to keep her updated through text messages to let her know she was still alive.

4. Text messaging can also prove to be a powerful tool in the hands of governments. In the midst of the uprising in Egypt that brought down longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, the Egyptian Information Ministry took the war to the phone networks, forcing mobile-phone providers such as Vodafone, Mobinil, and Etisalat to send out text messages to subscribers urging them to “confront traitors and the criminals.”

Here's the full text message sent to Vodafone subscribers on February 1:

“The Armed Forces urge Egypt’s loyal men to confront the traitors and the criminals and to protect our families, our honor and our precious Egypt.”

According to analysts at the Cairo-based AlembicHC research company, Egypt is home to one of the most advanced telecommunications markets in the Middle East and Africa, with 74.9 million subscribers.

5. U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt is known for his powerful fireside chats via radio, John F. Kennedy shone in his charismatic television appearances, and Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign was hailed for its clever and aggressive use of social media. It also utilized SMSs, famously announcing Obama's pick for vice president in a middle-of-the-night text message sent to 3 million people: "Barack has chosen Senator Joe Biden to be our VP nominee."

-- Deana Kjuka
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Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at transmission+rferl.org

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