News / Asia

Q&A: The Effect of Social Media on Thai Politics

FILE - A smartphone user shows the Facebook application on his phone.
FILE - A smartphone user shows the Facebook application on his phone.
Mike Fussell
Political division in Thailand appears to be just as visible online as it is on the streets of Bangkok. Social media watchers say the Thai capital is the city with the most Facebook users in the world; in turn, the way people are talking about politics in the country is being shaped by social media in a large way.
Online political communication is becoming more personal as debate throughout the country intensifies. As a result, people are increasingly defriending each other on Facebook. Defriending refers to removing someone from a user’s social network. Once this occurs, a user will no longer be able to see pictures, comments and statuses in their newsfeed of that person.
Analysts say this opt-out attitude toward political discussion isn’t healthy for Thailand’s political system as a whole. When a person takes themselves out of the conversation, they claim, a lack of diverse and competing voices threatens to further polarize the political climate.   
VOA's Mike Fussell spoke with Matthew Phillips, a lecturer in modern Asian history at Aberystwyth University, in Great Britain, about the effect Facebook is having on politics in Thailand as the social media company celebrates its tenth birthday on February 4.
FUSSELL: How is social media, especially Facebook, playing a role in how people communicate their political views in Thailand? Is it impacting the overall discourse in a substantial way?
PHILLIPS: There is no question that, over the past four years, Thais have increasingly moved online to articulate their political opinions. Today, there are 25 million people on Facebook. They use it in a number of ways to establish their own political views as well as assert and regulate the way in which they are participating in politics. 
FUSSELL:How much of an impact has social mediahad on the elections going on in Thailand?
PHILLIPS: The act of going to a ballot box and casting your vote is obviously something that has to happen in the real world. It’s also something that is being regulated through current political discourse.
That being said, you can’t really see the current discourse without understanding the role of social media.
 In times gone by, where media generally is regulated through international or local channels, you clearly have different sides of opinion. These things have to be negotiated to sell to the right markets and to create narratives of both inclusion and exclusion. The problem with social networking is that it can be really authoritarian in the way it establishes what is socially acceptable.
So, the act of defriending is having sort of serious repercussions for individuals.Those that feel a sense of responsibility to their friendship groups are much more aware of the politics of these groups because of what they’re experiencing in both their online and real identities. This does have an effect on how they see their role. 
In the current election, there is no question that’s happened on both sides. We’ve also seen a very significant campaign to mobilize people to get out and vote which has done quite a good job of distancing itself from open support of the current government.Instead, it’s seeing itself as a sort of civil action group.
FUSSELL: Are people primarily using social media as a way to have their voices heard or are they using it to organize protests and other things of that nature?
PHILLIPS:  Definitely, to organize as well. The great thing about social media, for those people who aren’t on the street protesting, is it allows them to keep up to speed and to keep their group contained while things are happening elsewhere. This also means that we’ve seen people use Facebook to mobilize right from 2010.
 When these largely middle class people, who were the first to join Facebook, were opposed to the protests, they formed very strong opinions about what was happening on the streets.  Particularly when they were unable to go onto the streets, you saw an enormous amount of activity on Facebook.
Then, after the protest, there was a campaign to mobilize people on Facebook to go onto the streets and then clean them up. That can be seen as tangible evidence of how the social networking world and the real world are interacting in very interesting ways.
FUSSELL: How is the act of defriending someone on Facebook somewhat polarizing the political discussion in Thailand?
PHILLIPS: We all know that the process of being blocked or defriended on Facebook can be a very challenging experience. We have heard of many cases of people who would have to negotiate those relationships and have had to deal with what it means to be defriended. That can be very difficult.
Thailand has been politically very difficult for many years now and people, for that reason, are very cautious about what they might say in public. Yet, online those things are much harder to negotiate when the country is divided and polarized as much as it currently is. That is a very significant effect.

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