Social media and political conflict
The internet and social media is playing an important new role in Thai politics. With the rise of new media, politicians, activists and intellectuals are increasingly using social media as a platform to share ideas and opinions. Leading politicians like Yingluck Shinawatra, Abhisit Vejjajiva and Suthep Thaugsuban all have Facebook accounts that have received more than two million likes. Thai politicians started using Facebook and Twitter extensively in 2009 and 2010. Politicians and social commentators usually post thoughts on political matters, photos, links to their articles, and YouTube links of interviews.
With increasing internet access in Thailand, the internet is gradually becoming the main source of news for Thai people. This is particularly the case for people living in urban areas.
According to a 2012 survey, one third of Thailand’s population has regular internet access and about 8.6 million Thais use the internet every day. Statistics from 2014 showed that Thailand had roughly 24 million Facebook users, making Thailand Facebook’s ninth biggest country worldwide. 55 percent of Thai Facebook users live in Bangkok. Even with growing access to the internet and wireless communication there still exist inequalities in broadband access and educational gaps in the ability to operate a digital culture. In the provinces outside of Bangkok and other major cities internet access is still limited.
The media and the state
Historically, Thai media, although relatively free by regional standards, has been under direct or indirect control of the government. This has particularly been the case during the periods of military rule. Broadcast media has been censored and used as a tool of control by the state.
Up until the 1990’s the military had practically total control of print and broadcast media. Following the end of military dictatorship in the early 1990’s media became freer but several major TV and radio-stations remain under military ownership and mainstream media is still largely under elite control. The mainstream media is generally Bangkok centered, and journalists often practice self-censorship and stay away from “sensitive” topics. The current political conflict has resulted in increasing media restrictions, and in 2014 Reporters Without Borders rated Thailand 130 of 180 nations in press freedom, while U.S based non-government organization, Freedom House rated the Thai press as being “not free”.
In a country where people historically haven’t been allowed to openly and freely discuss certain matters, social media has the potential power to alter society. On social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter millions of user can share news, ideas and opinions that would not make it into traditional media. Direct, uncensored criticism of powerful people can be shared and discussed freely without interference. File-sharing and p2p networks have also made it possible to get access to books and articles that are banned in Thailand. The rise of these technologies, which allows the public increasing access to information, could lead to the democratization of knowledge and the development of a more democratic society. New media is providing people with a platform to discuss their political beliefs.
The Military Coup
When the military staged the May coup and ousted the elected government they also took control of all TV-stations in Bangkok and some other parts of the country. Broadcast media were ordered to suspend all normal programming. Television and radio-stations were forced to broadcast government programs whenever required. For several days nationalist songs, pro-military propaganda and announcements by the junta was broadcasted. The military warned journalist from spreading information that might cause “confusion and unrest”.
Picture from the junta’s television program ‘returning happiness to the people’
Previous coup makers had also made an effort to take control of media and silence the opposition. This time, the military successfully took control of television, newspapers and radio but they could not control the internet. Uncensored information about the political situation in Thailand was shared by millions of users. Journalists and academics were banned from addressing political matters on traditional media channels but the military could not prevent internet users from sharing their views on the coup online.
The situation was somewhat new for the military. It had clearly become more difficult for them to control information.
Since the PDRC’s anti-government, pro-military street protests, a number of people had created live blogs which they linked to their Facebook and twitter accounts. The blogs provided live updates, often with pictures, on what was taking place in Bangkok. After the military coup the live blogs reported on the political development and shared information on public protests against the military junta and the movement of soldiers in the capital. Groups that opposed the military junta used social media to stage flash mobs throughout the capital. Wireless communication networks created spontaneous processes of mobilization. This was an example of the mobilization capacities of the internet.
Anti-coup protesters in Bangkok
While browsing through the internet during lunch in the Siam Square area of Bangkok I read a tweet about a protest taking place in Ratchaprasong. I quickly moved towards the area and found several hundred pro-democracy protesters that had gathered to show their disapproval of the junta. Images of the protesters were posted on various social media sites in real time. This attracted people to get out on the street and join the protest. Protesters walked from Ratchaprasong to Victory Monument. Along the way people took pictures and recorded the march using their mobile phones. The ability to communicate in real time enabled people to construct instant networks of communication.
Government control of the internet
Social media is a medium that is currently beyond the control of the military government. It therefore poses a threat to their power and ambitions of controlling information. The Thai junta is currently still figuring out how to increase their control of the internet. The 2007 Computer Crimes Act, which is currently being revised and updated, have been used to bring enforcements of Thailand’s laws to the internet. Thousands of websites are currently blocked in Thailand. The total number of blocked websites in 2011 was estimated to be between 80-100 000. Although thousands of websites featuring “illegal” content have been blocked, social media sites are still available. The Thai government blocked YouTube for a short period in 2007 but the backlash from the public pressured the government to make the website accessible again.
Shortly after the 2014 military coup Facebook went down for a couple of hours. Rumors spread that the military had put it down. This was denied by the army and the popular social media site was soon up and running again. The Junta received criticism from the public during the short hours Facebook was down; this clearly showed that attempts by the government to block social media sites would have negative consequences.
Internet control in Asia
Government power partially relies on the control of information, and the internet, with its free flow of information, has come to pose a threat to authoritarian states throughout Asia. The state wishes to protect its values and political ideals from the influence of opposing ideologies. It’s in the interest of the authoritarian state to limit the population’s access to information and to prevent them from discussing topics that might threaten the power of the government.
Authoritarian regimes in the region have used different methods of limiting people’s access to the internet. China is one of the most extreme cases of state control of the internet.
In China, it’s not allowed to criticize the government and the internet is monitored and censored. The Chinese government’s apparatus of Internet control is the most extensive and advanced in the world. Social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook are blocked by the government. Instead, Chinese internet users use Weibo (Chinese for microblog). Weibo has a format that is similar to Twitter and share some similarities with Facebook. Weibo users can exchange short sentences, images, or video links. Weibo has approximately 300 million users in China. The microblogs have been used to share information about politics and social issues. Bloggers have discussed and shared information on topics that can be viewed as critical or damaging to the government. Posts on government corruption and abuse of power have been deleted by authorities and the Weibo accounts of journalists, academics and social activists are regularly blocked. In the governments regulations on microblog development it is stated that “It (microblogs) should propagate the socialist core value system and the advanced socialist culture, and serve to the establishment of a socialist harmonious society”. Posts that violate this are illegal, and could lead to long prison sentences.
In an attempt to make bloggers more cautious about what they post, the Chinese government has issued a law that states that bloggers that post false information that gets more than 5000 views risks three years in prison. Keywords such as human rights and Liu Xiaobo are on the governments blacklist. All posts featuring the blacklisted words will immediately be tracked down and deleted. Depending on the severity of the post arrests might be carried out.
The Thai government wants to increase its control of the internet and it is not unlikely that they will look to China for inspiration on how to curb online dissent. China has already a ready framework for how the state can control the internet and monitor online political activity. The question remains if new technologies will remain “free” in Thailand or if the Chinese model of internet monitoring will be implemented.
Social media and the Thai political crisis
The political conflict in Thailand is a war of words. The two opposing sides have very different perspectives on political matters and supporters of the different fractions tend to frame the conflict in fundamentally different ways. They represent two very contrasting worldviews.
Red-shirt sympathizers’ view the political conflict as being about democracy and about building a more socially just society were people are given equal opportunities. They frame the conflict as a battle between the majority population and a political and economic elite which has practically monopolized the access to power and opportunity. Yellow-shirt sympathizers argue that the conflict is about getting rid of corrupt politicians that have enriched themselves and their families at the expense of the nation. They believe that a return to authoritarian rule and restrictions on freedom of speech is needed to create “order” and to fix a rotten system. The Yellow-shirts also claim that they want to develop democracy in Thailand, but their vision of democracy is quite different from the red-shirts. They want a democratic system that is “compatible” with, what they refer to as “Thai values” and “tradition”, a so-called guided democracy under the supervision of “enlightened” rulers.
The yellow-shirts view people on the red-side as being ignorant and misguided people under the control of Thaksin. The term Thaksin’s slave is frequently used to attack their opponents. The leaders of the red-movement are often described as evil, corrupt traitors that wish to destroy Thailand. On the other hand, the reds argue that the yellow have been indoctrinated by state propaganda and that they represent the interest of a wealthy elite that refuse to allow the development of democracy in Thailand.
Ultimately, the red-shirts speak of democracy, social justice and freedom of speech, while the yellow-shirts speak of morality, tradition, anti-corruption and good governance. People that support the red-shirts question the dominant nationalist ideology promoted by the state and they advocate change. The yellow-shirts are predominantly conservative nationalists that wish to preserve the “traditional” attitudes, beliefs, values and socio-political order.
A woman that voted in the February election is portrayed as a heroine while the PDRC protesters that obstructed the election are depicted as the living dead
The two opposing sides are waging a digital war to shape public opinion. Information about political events and developments are often very different depending on the source. The spread of conflicting stories and contradictory facts on social media sites make it difficult for the public to develop an understanding of the political situation. Rumors, lies and smear campaigns have been used by both sides to attack the opposition. For the public, it has become more and more difficult to determine what is true and what is false.
A political demonstration might be described by a yellow-shirt commentator as a gathering of rented thugs paid by Thaksin to cause havoc and confusion, while a red-shirt sympathizer might view demonstrators as pro-democracy activists standing up for their right to vote.
The pro-establishment yellow-shirt movement is the most vocal on social media. The Yellow-shirts, whom mainly consist of middle-and upper-class Thais from Bangkok, have better access to the internet than the red-shirt supporters whom mainly live in the provinces outside of Bangkok. They have also usually more money and can afford new technology.
Example of the type of pictures shared by military supporters on social media
Besides access to internet and new technology there are also differences in how people from the opposing sides use the internet and express their political beliefs. The yellow-shirts represent the dominant ideology of the military and the traditional elite and have therefore little problems in terms of openly showing their political affiliations and convictions. Throughout the political crisis yellow-shirt supporters have openly worn t-shirts, hats and other symbols in public to show that they belong to and support a particular political fraction. On social media sites they are very vocal and open about their beliefs and political affiliations. The situation for the red-shirts is quite different, particularly since the beginning of the PDRC street movement that lead to the 2014 military coup. A person that openly shows support for the red-shirt movement risks being labeled as a traitor, terrorist or threat to national security. The red-shirt sympathizers also, unlike the yellow-shirts, risk being subjected to state-sponsored harassment. An example of this is the cases involving vocal academics and journalists that have been visited and questioned by police and military. While yellow-shirt supporters are very vocal on online forums red-shirts often hide behind fake identities or approach political matters very carefully.
Yellow-shirt supporter posts a picture of what to bring to an anti-Yingluck demonstration
The military coup, foreign media and yellow-shirt reaction
The political conflict in Thailand has gotten increasing coverage in the foreign press. The bloody military crackdown on protesters in 2010 and the 2014 military coup made headlines around the world. In foreign media, the conflict is generally presented in a way that favors the red-shirts. They are portrayed as being a pro-democracy movement that represents the will of the majority population. The yellow-shirts have often been labeled as elitist and anti-democratic. Some writers have used terms like ultra-nationalist and neo-fascist to describe their movement. Leaders of the yellow movement have reached out to the foreign press to explain their position, but this has in most cases caused more harm than good. The pro-military movement’s view on political events and their role in the current political struggle does not correspond with the image presented in foreign media and respected academic work. Instead, journalists and academics writing about Thailand tend to portray the current political conflict in a manner that favors the red-shirts. This constitutes a problem for the Yellow group.
A young PDRC protester surfs the net during the shutdown Bangkok campaign
Frustrated by their inability to win the media war the yellow group has often resorted to hate speech and attempts at intimidation. Their method of dealing with negative publicity has in many cases been to criticize, discredit and intimidate journalists, academics and activists that do not share their views. Attacking people with opposing views has over time become an intricate part of their struggle against the opposition. The objective of their attacks on media and the opposition appears to be to create an atmosphere where foreign media and intellectuals are distrusted and their views rejected.
The support the red-shirts have received from western media and leading academics have provided them with a moral high-ground that has caused anger and frustration within the yellow camp. People that sympathize with the red-shirts often share and discuss articles and news stories about Thailand produced by foreign media. The yellow-shirts tend to reject the opinions of foreigners that are critical of the army.
Social media has played an important role in the yellow movement’s attempts to discredit and silence its critics. Foreign media outlets that have criticized the democrat party, the military or other groups associated with the yellow-shirts have regularly been attacked.
CNN’s reporter Dan River’s is one of many reporters that have been targeted by the yellow-shirts. Pictures of Dan Rivers have been widely circulated online and CNN has been accused of portraying a false image of the political situation in Thailand. BBC’s Southeast Asian correspondent Jonathan Head and New York Times Bangkok correspondent Thomas Fuller are other examples of journalists that have been accused of receiving money from Thaksin to distort the truth about what is happening in Thailand. There are numerous conspiracy theories floating around the internet that claim that Thaksin has paid western media to produce lies about Thailand. The idea that Thaksin has influence over western media appears to be firmly established within certain fractions of the yellow movement. They have not produced any evidence to back up their accusations.
The yellow movement has also launched campaigns against local Thai and foreign journalists. Bangkok based freelance journalist Nick Nostitz was accused of working for Thaksin Shinawatra. Pictures of Mr. Nostitz have been shared on social networking sites and he received threats. While attending a yellow-shirt protest site he was physically assaulted and during a later incident a group of yellow-shirt activists tried to kidnap him. The online hate campaign against Mr. Nostitz made it impossible for him to continue covering the political unrest. He feared for his safety. During the PDRC protests journalists were regularly attacked and intimidated by protesters. Wimonwan Thampakdee, of Thairath TV commented on the increasingly hostile attitudes towards journalists in the following way “When Thailand faced political rallies in 2004, the Thai Journalists Association gave out armbands to distinguish reporters from protesters – but today armbands made reporters targets for some protesters…………An armband is like a vacuum cleaner that sucks protesters to us. People walk up to reporters after they see an armband and ask ‘Where do you work?’ And some ask us: ‘Do you come from Channel 9?'”
While intimidation and attacks on reporters working for TV-channels believed to portray the protest movement in an unfavorable way were common, reporters coming from the anti-Thaksin or military-owned news stations did not receive the same treatment.
Throughout the PDRC street protests journalists accused of siding with the Yingluck government or of criticizing the PDRC was regularly smeared online.
In late 2013, US Ambassador Kristie Kenney came under fire after stating in an interview that she supported the new election called by the Yingluck Shinawatra government. The Ambassador had previously been criticized by the yellow-shirt movement after she had voiced her concern over the imprisonment of an American citizen for translating and posting a book online that was banned in Thailand. Kenney had stated that she was “troubled by prosecutions inconsistent with international standard of freedom of expression”,
Kenney’s support for the new elections came during a time when the PDRC and the Yellow movement had been criticized in foreign media. The ambassador’s statement, which was interpreted as the U.S taking sides in the conflict, angered the yellow-shirts.
They responded by launching an online smear campaign against the ambassador. Yellow-shirt supporters were urged to criticize Kenney on the Facebook page of the American Embassy in Bangkok. They demanded that Kenney would be removed from her position and that the U.S stops interfering in Thailand’s internal affairs.
In January 2015 visiting US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Daniel Russell, delivered a speech at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. In the speech Mr. Russell stated that he was “concerned about the significant restraints on freedoms since the coup, including restrictions on speech and on assembly”. Daniel Russel’s statement sparked another wave of online anti-Americanism. Supporters of the junta urged the U.S to mind their own business.
Once again the yellow-shirts launched a campaign against the U.S embassy, filling their page with anti-American posts. Conspiracy theories about the relationship between Thaksin and the U.S government reappeared on Yellow-shirt social media sites. In the wake of western criticism the junta declared that they would develop closer relations with China. This statement was embraced by the online community. China would not interfere in Thailand’s internal affairs.
Character assassination is one of the most potent weapons in media politics. It can progress in numerous ways, by distorting statements made by a person, making false claims, or spreading rumors and lies that would harm an individual’s reputation.
Many local and foreign academics that have criticized the PDRC, the military and the yellow movement have been attacked on social media. On social networking sites like Facebook supporters of the yellow movement regularly share pictures of academics and activists and accuse them of either being paid by Thaksin or of being disloyal towards the monarchy. The comment section of these posts often features threats and rude and vulgar language. Several academics have been threatened and assaulted after having their pictures posted on yellow-shirt Facebook pages. When academics produce work that does not correspond with the ideas of the anti-Thaksin camp they are quick to accuse the author of being paid by Thaksin. A post that has been widely circulated on social media feature a picture of Thai University professors known to be critical of the military and the yellow-shirts. Under the picture is the text” how can these people be allowed to teach your children? ”. In the comment section the professors are accused of being paid by Thaksin, disloyal to the monarchy, traitors and not “real” Thais.
The objective appears to be to make the public distrust and question the opinions of academics and journalists, and also to create a sense of fear and uncertainty. They want to silence opposing voices and make people scared to question certain ideas and beliefs. An intellectual that openly questions the dominant, nationalist values and ideology, risks being branded as a traitor and an enemy of the nation and this could cost them their career.
There are also a number of cases were students and activists have been attacked on social media. One case which has received a lot of attention involves a Thammasat student who was accused of being disloyal to the monarchy on social media. Pictures of the student was widely shared on yellow-shirt Facebook pages, in the comment section several people wrote that they would kill or hurt the student if they ever came across her. The student was described as a traitor, and an animal that deserves to die. The student fled Thailand after the coup, she feared that she would get arrested by the military. ASTV Manager, one of the main yellow-shirt newspapers and a pioneer in Thai online media, published a fictional article in which the student was arrested by the police, sent to prison and then gang-raped by inmates. The article was supposed to be “funny”. Another case involves a young, well-known student activist. The student received online threats after openly questioning the motives of the PDRC protesters and the Thai military. His picture was shared amongst thousands of Facebook users whom accused him of being a traitor and disloyal to the monarchy. While studying abroad the student was threatened by a soldier who said he would shot him once he returned to Thailand.
Student activists that have staged peaceful protests against the 2014 military coup have also had their names and pictures shared on anti-Thaksin, yellow-shirt media sites. They have frequently been accused of being terrorists paid by Thaksin to destroy Thailand. These are just some examples of how social media has been used to attack and smear political opponents.
As mentioned earlier in the article, new media has come to play an important role in contemporary Thai politics. It has provided politicians, intellectuals and social commentators with a platform that enables them to reach millions of people.
New media has made it easier for the public to access information and educate themselves about political matters. Alternative views on society and politics that would most likely not make it into the mainstream public discourse are today available online. This new technology has played an important role in the recent political awakening of the masses. Groups that previously were excluded from the political sphere are educating themselves and becoming more active. The internet has undoubtedly democratized the access to information and it has provided people with a platform to express views and beliefs on society, history, politics and culture. Social media is increasingly being used as a tool by the opposition to challenge and question the dominant ideologies of the traditional elite.
The internet poses a genuine challenge to the traditional elite’s values, beliefs, and morals that make up the bulk of Thailand’s dominant ideology. The core of their beliefs is now being challenged by the opposition. The reproduction of the dominant ideology has been dependent on the elite’s control of mass media. Now, people are gradually moving away from traditional media and are increasingly receiving their news and information from a complex virtual network. They are exposed to alternative narratives and ideologies that challenge that of the dominant ideology.
Comment on freedom of speech from the popular FB page р╕бр╕▓р╕Щр╕╡р╕бр╕╡р╣Бр╕Кр╕гр╣М
The military and political elite are working hard to censor and silence the opposition. Their methods have been censorship, restrictions on freedom of speech and criminalizing dissent. At the same time as the junta is silencing opposing views they are launching campaigns aimed at gaining support from the public. The military’s ability to remain in power is directly connected to their ability to control information and to shape public opinion. But can they convince enough people that what they are doing is in the interest of the nation? Censorship, restrictions on freedom of speech and criminalization of social protest can only continue as long as the military receive support from large groups of people.
A large portion of the yellow-shirts seem to be supporting the military’s attempt at silencing the opposition. In their struggle against corruption and what they perceive as bad governance, they view human rights violations and restrictions on freedom of speech as being justified. Some fractions of the yellow movement do not only support the military’s efforts at muzzling public debate, they have themselves used social media to attack and slander those that challenge the dominant ideology. We can see a similar development in China, where the middle and upper-class, those that have benefited from the existing socio-political order, support state repression and violence against those that challenge the dominant ideology. Just like in Thailand, Chinese government supporters have used the internet to voice their support for the government and attack dissidents.
The question that remains is, if what we’re seeing is just a phase or if it is the beginning of increasing government control of the internet and social media. The government is already monitoring social media and the new computer crimes act appears to be designed to make it easier for them to take legal action against people sharing certain types of information online. But, it is still too early to make any conclusions about the future. We must wait and see how the government chooses to implement the law and what effects it will have on the internet usage in Thailand. Social media can function as a liberator but it also has the potential of becoming another tool of oppression.
Robert Talcoth is a graduate of Chulalongkorn University’s Southeast Asian Studies Program