Events over the last week demonstrated just how widespread use of social networks is across Southeast Asia, whilst also highlighting the ugly side that social media can take in the region.
Social networks in Thailand have graduated from those, like Hi5, used predominantly for photo sharing and chatting, to mainstream communications platforms with a strong emphasis on news and politics. It is telling that a number of influential journalists and political commentators enjoying a strong presence and audience on Facebook which now has more than 6.5 million members in the country – while of course the country’s political protests in Bangkok brought about much activity on Facebook earlier this year.
One side-effect of the more serious (and widespread) use of Facebook in the country has been the emergence of so-called ‘hate-mobs’, which began during the red shirt protests in Bangkok. During this time, Facebook groups were set up in Thailand preaching derogatory, hateful and quite honestly disgusting comments about those participating in the protests which brought the country’s capital city Bangkok to a standstill.
A tragic car accident which took place on Tuesday evening (via Bangkok Post) once again brought the hate-mobs to Facebook, although this incident sees their wrath directed at a 16 year-old girl whose car crashed into a mini-van leading to the death of nine passengers. The group has grown to more than 100,000 members.
The girl, who is from a well connected and ‘high society’ family, is legally not old enough to drive and much of the attention is focused on whether her family connections will see her escape severe punishment for the accident, while photos of her using her BlackBerry immediately after the crash have been seized upon as evidence for an assumption that she was chatting with friends and showed no remorse for her actions. In fact, this has gone a step further with allegedly fake screenshots of her BlackBerry circulated across social networks and web forums as further ‘proof’ of her lack of sincerity, while her phone number has also been published on Facebook.
The Bangkok Post wraps up the online furore surrounding the girl and the incident:
The online community, in particular, is enraged over the photograph of the girl, although her family insists she was merely alerting her father.
A Facebook page, “More than one million Thais are Not Happy With Prae-wa (Orachorn) Thephasadin Na Ayudhya”, has been created where netizens are voicing their opinions of the accident. It attracted more than 150,000 users who “like” the page within 18 hours of its creation.
The comments range from mild criticism to sarcasm to sheer outrage, while others ask people not to pass early judgement and let justice take its course.
Actor Nat Thephasadin Na Ayudhya, Ms Orachorn’s step-brother, said his sister and family were under great pressure as a result of the barrage of criticism.
Nat insisted his sister was not chatting with friends on her Blackberry phone as widely believed.
“I talked to her about the photo which is circulating on the internet,” he said.
“She was calling her father. She wasn’t chatting on BB.”
Equally disturbing has been the reaction of Thais using Twitter as the screenshot from ThaiTrend – taken early this morning – indicates.
Three key indicators demonstrate the level of vitriol directed at the girl, Praewa.
Firstly, a hashtag – #ihatepraewa – was set up to log and group the comments together. As the graph shows it was the popular hashtag, by a large margin, used by Thai Twitter users during the whole day.
Secondly her name (written in Thai) appears at the top of the one day vowel (sic) list, indicating that her name was included in more messages by Thais on Twitter than any other word (noun). In fact, her name was used so much that it got around 30 percent more traffic than Happy New Year (despite Thais passion for New Year celebrations and the imminent arrival of the new year) while her name received seven times more mentions than Mark Zuckerberg, despite the huge interest in the Facebook founder’s visit to Bangkok which saw considerable interest on Twitter as media reports and photos of him were circulated during the day.
Finally, the hate-mob falsely outed one Twitter user – @PUREloveNUT – as being the girl which subsequently led to her receiving a huge number of hate messages and abuse, before ultimately the truth emerged. The incident and assumption of the hate-mob led to @PUREloveNUT receiving the most mentions of anyone using Twitter in Thailand, almost double that of the number two most mentioned user, propelling her from a little known user to one with more mentions than most Thai celebrities combined.
Many Twitter users spoke out in condemnation of the hashtag and the Facebook group which includes pictures of Praewa alongside many of the types of comments described by the Bangkok Post.
The upshot of this vitriolic response has seen the girl admitted to hospital suffering stress from the deluge of threats and abuse she has received both from social networks and to her phone after her number was posted online. Thai journalist Kanok Ratwongsakul published a Facebook note (in Thai – though a translated version has been added to the bottom of this post) following a conversation with the girl’s mother confirming her daughter had not fled the country (as rumours had suggested) and that she was suffering stress from the abuse.
Far be it from me to pass judgement on the events which took place on Tuesday night, but clearly the reaction and attack on this young girl has gone way too far. It has been suggested that disillusion with the system – and principally how her family connections may help her escape punishment – and lack of faith in the media to accurately report the news – an article from the The Nation suggesting that the girl’s age would acquit her of charges hardly helped – are chiefly responsible for the reaction and it is easy to see how and why people are emotional about the events, but the ugly side of social media paints Thai society as a savage, revenge-seeking mob.
Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, it all kicked off when Malaysia and Indonesia met during the final leg of the AFF Cup (soccer) final.
Indonesia lost 0-3 to host Malaysia in the Asean Football Federation (AFF) Cup finals first leg, which was marred by laser beam incidents shot by Malaysian supporters to Indonesian players.
Indonesian players decided to walk out from the pitch in the 54th minute, complaining about low visibility after being shot with a number of laser beams by Malaysian supporters.
After a negotiation, all the players got back to the pitch, but just few minutes after the restart, Indonesia conceded three goals.
Off the pitch and on social media things got ugly with Indonesian fans alleging that the Malaysians had cheated, in response Indonesia – known for being the world’s biggest Twitter addict – saw a number of anti-Malaysia hashtag trends on Twitter’s global service as Karim Raslan points out in his Jakarta Globe column:
But the angry rhetoric seemed to swiftly gather momentum. When I turned — albeit reluctantly — to Twitter, I discovered that it was swamped with frustrated and at times furious comments linked to the just-concluded match. I winced inwardly as I read the venomous comments.
In fact four topics — “malaysiacheaterlaser,” “Hate Malaysia,” “Love Malaysia” and “Love Indonesia” were trending worldwide on Twitter by that time.
Two Malaysian bloggers both have interesting accounts of the post match rivalry here and here, while the graphic below shows four hashtags – #Malaysia, #Indonesia, #Laser and #Malaysialasercheat – which all trended after the game, the latter is particularly notable for trending on Twitter’s global service just 30 minutes after being coined.
While the social media insults exchanged between Malaysia and Indonesia are somewhat frivolous and not overly meaningful, the issue in Thailand has once again reared its ugly head and exposed some of the social issues within the country.
While the west has had scandals about social media, examples of such extreme freedom of expression and hatred are not easy to find which can leave one reaching a number of conclusions depending on the viewpoint adopted.
For me, it is clear that Southeast Asians are passionate about using social media to express themselves and connect with other people, to the extent that opinions and prominent topics from society are reflected in the discussions on the likes of Twitter and Facebook… including the good, the bad and the ugly.
UPDATE: a translated version of Thai journalist Kanok Ratwongsakul’s Facebook note, which includes comments from the 16 year old girl’s mother, has reached me and is pasted below.
This afternoon a senior news reporter asked me to speak on the topic of “Praewa”, who has come under intense public pressure in cyberspace. Once I understood the reason–that the parents of the child were keeping out of the public eye, and had not expressed sorrow or apologized–I agreed to speak on this subject of why the parents were leaving their daughter, who is obviously in the wrong, to be savaged so harshly by the public.
I spoke with relatives and with the mother of the girl. The first thing her mother said was, “We sincerely apologize to everyone, to every family who has suffered loss or injury. We definitely are not running away, but we’d like to let the tenor of public emotions settle a little more first. Until then, we’re sending our daughter’s aunt as a representative to express our condolences both at the funerals and at the hospital.
“Our family is in great distress. No one has been able to sleep at all since the accident. Of course we are shocked and saddened that our daughter caused an accident in which 8 people died. Someone posted our telephone number on Facebook, and posted pictures of Praewa. We’ve had people calling all night to berate us.
“My husband and I apologize very, very sincerely. We’ve had to move Praewa out of Vibhavadi Hospital to another hospital, and then to another hospital, because of threats of violence and death threats, both by telephone and other channels, including people breaking into her hospital room. We understand the emotions in society right now. The hospital also asked us to leave; we didn’t make the decision alone. Now our daughter is recuperating somewhere else. She hasn’t fled the country. Even if we could flee the law we can’t flee the guilt.
“As for the accident.. our daughter admits she was speeding! She was rushing to return the car to her friend. It wasn’t our car. I have never allowed her to drive outside like that. (As for the details of which car was in which lane, that is a police matter.) After the crash, she was trapped in the car. Once rescue workers pulled her out, since window glass had pierced her bottom she couldn’t sit down. So she leaned there on the side of the road. Police asked to see her license and insurance. She is certainly in the wrong for being 16 and having no license. She wrote to her friend on her Blackberry to inform the friend about the accident and to ask about the car’s insurance details. She wasn’t standing around chatting on the Blackberry as some have thought.”
H/t to an anonymous reader for flagging this translation which is not, as yet, available online and was passed over as a word doc though it has been verified by @thai101, a recognised fluent English-Thai figure.