Social media has come to play an increasingly important role in Thai politics. Most top politicians, academics and journalists use social media sites to share information and opinions on various political and social issues.
Ordinary Thais are also increasingly using social media as a platform to show their political views. Social media has come to function as an alternative to the traditional media as a source of information about society and politics. In contrast to the traditional Thai media, which is conservative and often reluctant to address controversial and sensitive issues, social media offers an uncensored, in-your-face alternative.
The importance of social media in contemporary Thai politics was particularly clear during the current political crisis that lead up to the military coup in May 2014. Anti-government groups actively used social media to attack and discredit the government.
In late 2013, the PDRC (People’s Democratic Reform Committee) began their street protest campaign aimed at forcing the democratically elected government to step down. The protest would last for several months.
The PDRC referred to themselves as the Great Mass of the People and they claimed that they represented the interest of the majority. The PDRC leadership argued that the people had lost faith in the Yingluck government and that the people demanded that the government resign. The large number of protesters at their rallies was according to the PDRC proof that people supported their movement and their goals. The number of protesters was heavily exaggerated in order to provide the anti-government movement with political legitimacy.
Politicians and activists connected to the PDRC used social media to share images of large crowds of people taking to the streets, protesting against the elected government. It became somewhat of a trend on social media to post selfies taken at the different protest sites. Thousands of Thais shared images taken at the different demonstrations throughout Bangkok. This helped strengthen the PDRC’s self-image of a “people’s” movement.
The PDRC had large support in Bangkok, particularly from the middle and upper-class. Bangkok has long been a stronghold for political groups that oppose former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his political allies. Besides the large number of Bangkok residents that joined the anti-government protest, the PDRC transported large amounts of people from Southern Thailand to Bangkok. The large crowds that took part in the anti-government protests in Bangkok did not represent the political views of the majority of the Thai population.
Although the PDRC managed to draw larger crowds than neutral observers had expected, the leadership still reported inflated numbers. Supporters of the movement argued that millions of people had taken to the streets to show their disapproval of the government.
Sathis Wongnogtoey, a leader of the PDRC, claimed that around six million people had joined their protest in Bangkok.
Sathit argued that they had used scientific methods to calculate the number of protesters and that the Center for the Administration of Peace and Order (CAPO) and National Security Council (NSC), who estimated the total number of protesters at a couple of hundred thousand, distorted facts and lied about the number of people attending the protest.
During another of the PDRC’s protests, Suthep Thaugsubaun claimed that more than one million people were at the protest. This number significantly differs from estimations made by the police, who put the number at 98 000, and a military intelligence unite which estimated 150,000 people (see Bangkok Pundit, 2013)
Throughout the six months of street protests neutral observers estimated that a single rally was not attended by more than a couple of hundred thousand. Although neutral observers reported numbers that were much lower than the numbers given by the PDRC leadership, supporters of the PDRC continued to claim that millions of people had joined their protests. Friends of mine that were involved in the movement were all convinced that millions of Thais had taken to the streets to show their disapproval of the government. While the PDRC shared heavily exaggerated number of protesters, the political opposition argued that the anti-government movement was losing momentum and that it was slowly dying down. Pictures of half-empty protest sites were shared on pro-government Facebook pages.
The government and their supporters remained passive during the PDRC’s street protests. The reason for this was mainly the fear that a confrontation with anti-government protesters would lead to violence, and this would be used as an excuse for the military to stage another coup. During the PDRC’s six month long protest campaign the pro-government movement organized few gatherings. One event, which took place in a stadium in Ramkhamheang ended in bloodshed and a number of casualties. In order to avoid direct confrontation the pro-government movement (UDD) decided to hold a major rally in the outskirts of Bangkok.
On 5 April 2014, the red-shirts (UDD), held a large pro-government demonstration in Putthamonthon road. Prior to the protest, red-shirt leaders wrote on social media that they estimated that around 500,000 supporters would attend. The official Facebook page of the UDD, and the Facebook pages of Red-shirt leaders Tida Tawornseth’s and Jatuporn Prompan, all had information about the demonstration.
On the UDD Facebook page there was a photo of a large red hand crushing a military tank. The image represented the idea that the power of the people, represented by the red-shirt movement, would ultimately defeat the military, the backers of the PDRC street movement, and prevent them from toppling the government and seizing power. The text on the picture reads “5 April, make history and protect democracy”. During the months of political unrest the red-shirt leaders shared posts on democracy and the power of the people. UDD and the red-shirts portrayed themselves as representatives and defenders of democracy in Thailand.
The turnout of the pro-government protest was important. The PDRC had since the beginning of their street protest claimed that they represented the people. They called themselves “the great mass of the people” and argued that they spoke for the majority.
A large turnout for the red-shirt protest would be a major blow to the PDRC, since it would signify that the government still had support from the public. It was therefore in the interest of the anti-government movementto try to discredit the pro-government rally in Putthamonthon.
Before the red-shirt rally took place, anti-government groups posted messages and images on Social networking sites, accusing the government of paying people to attend the rally. The UDD was accused of paying Burmese and Cambodian nationals to join the protest. What appeared to be a photo-shopped image of red-shirt protesters wearing sarongs, a type of dress commonly associated with non-Thais, was circulated on social media. Above the photo was the text “where do these people come from?”
Accusations that Cambodians and other foreigners were involved in pro-government activities were made by the opposition throughout their protest. Anti-government protesters claimed that Cambodians dressed as Thai policemen had been sent in by the government to hurt them. Mr. Boonsong Chaletorn, a regular speaker at one of the PDRC’s protest sites told the crowd that half of the policemen at the rally site were Cambodians paid to shoot and kill people (see Bangkok Pundit, 2013).
The PDRC also spread rumors that Cambodian mercenaries had been hired by the red-shirts to attack their protest camps. These rumors were widely circulated on social media sites. The rumors were backed by high-ranking officers in the navy who argued that they had evidence that Cambodian mercenaries had entered Thailand. No evidence was ever released. It’s most likely that the PDRC leadership fabricated these stories in order to discredit the government. Even though they didn’t produce any evidence indicating that Cambodians or other foreigners were involved in the protests, the information continued to spread.
When pictures from the red-shirt rally in Putthamonthon were released, PDRC supporters argued that images had been tampered with and that the number of protesters attending the rally was much smaller than shown in the supposedly “manipulated” images. A photo posted on several anti-government FB group pages featured an image of Putthamonthon road before the protest, next to that was a photo-shopped version of the same photo. The manipulated image was filled with people wearing red shirts. The post contained a text which roughly stated “this is what we’re going to see after the protest”. The purpose of the image was clearly to show how easy it is to manipulate a photo. The photo implied that the red-shirts manipulate photos to make it look that there are a lot of people at their protests.
The aim of the PDRC appeared to be to create an environment where information indicating that the red-shirts had large-scale support would automatically be doubted and questioned.
Bangkok Post Learning, a Facebook group with over 130,000 followers, posted a story on the red-shirt rally in Putthamonthon. The story featured pictures taken during the protest. In the pictures you could see a large crowd of what appeared to be in the tens of thousands. Shortly after the story was posted it had received a large number of comments. Many of the users that posted comments doubted the pictures authenticity. They believed the pictures had been manipulated. Even though BK Post Learning replied that the photo was taken by the newspapers own photographer, several users continued to argue that the pictures were fake. One user commented on the post and asked how many of the people in the picture were Burmese or Khmer. Other users wrote that the people in the picture had been paid to attend the rally. Anti-government Facebook groups shared pictures of a half-empty rally site at Putthamonthon. They argued that the pro-government rally was a failure and that people did not come to show their support for the government.
During the political crisis, the opposing sides used their ability to mobilize large crowds as a source of political legitimacy. By being able to organize, and mobilize people, political leaders argued that they represented the interest of the majority.
The number of protesters was particularly important to the PDRC since they had never won any elections. The situation for the government was different; they had won the election and could therefore rightfully claim that they represented the people.
The leading political groups within the PDRC had participated in past elections but they had not been successful. Their political legitimacy did not come from democratic elections; it derived from the number of people that joined their street protest. Large crowds were used to argue that the people were fed up with the government and that they wanted change. The PDRC therefore heavily exaggerate the number of people that attended their rallies at the same time as they argued that the government lacked public support.
In the minds of PDRC supporters, the ‘Shutdown Bangkok’ campaign will be remembered as the time when millions of Thais took to the streets to show their disapproval of deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his family.
Friends that supported the PDRC all believe that the number of protesters at the political rallies were in fact in the millions. They are convinced that the much lower numbers reported by independent sources are false. The anti-government movement refuses to acknowledge the popularity of Thaksin and his political allies. In the PDRC discourse, red-shirt supporters have been bought or tricked by Thaksin into voting for him. Even though Thaksin and political parties associated with him has won every election held in Thailand since 2001, the anti-Thaksin camp still believes that the majority of Thais share their political beliefs. The number of people that took to the streets during the PDRC campaign supports their view that Thai people oppose Thaksin and his family. In the minds of the people within the anti-government movement there were millions of Thais on the streets opposing the government. Social media was used to reinforce this image.
Robert Talcoth is a graduate of Chulalongkorn University’s Southeast Asian Studies Program