I’ve read, seen and heard a number of statements discussing the role of social media in Thailand politics. Most conclude that the role of social media will be “huge” in the forthcoming Thai election, however the subject is somewhat more complicated and worth exploring.
The answer for me is yes and no at the same time.
‘Yes’ because clearly social media is a major focus of time and money for both major parties (as I previously outlined). It has changed how they communicate publicly and with their own supporters. Yet the answer can also be a ‘no’ because, in a country where internet penetration is less than one third, no internet-based service enjoys mass market reach.
The demographics online are also not entirely representative of the country. Urban areas, in particular Bangkok, have greater representation (proportionally) online while many of the less affluent of the population are unable to access the internet on a regular basis.
When talking social media in the Thai election Facebook and Twitter are the two main platforms, with both playing distinctly different roles. The following looks at how politicians and parties are using social media, and how issues are discussed by potential voters on platforms like Twitter and Facebook.
Twitter is a niche but increasingly significant platform in Thailand. It has a far smaller pool of reach in the country than other sites, with estimates ranging from 500,000 to 1 million users. Even the highest estimate on usage represents little more than 1.5% of the population and a small fraction of Thailand’s 20 million internet users.
Though it does not have mass appeal, even within Thailand’s internet user community, Twitter is becoming a well used tool for politicians. It is ideal for posting short, personal updates which can cover a range of content from personal statements, campaign comments, policy details, media statements and even interviews or responses to questions.
Twitter allows supporters and fans to get up-to-the-minute updates from political parties and figures keeping them informed – which I suspect may be a reason for the increased number of Twitter users in Thailand.
While Twitter doesn’t have direct reach to significant numbers of the Thai population many Twitter users are key influencers – journalists, policy-makers, analysts etc – who regularly use to site to find information and details which may be used in other areas where they may have greater influence over the country, such as media articles.
Facebook now has 10 million users in Thailand but as yet no political party or figure has thus managed to attract even 1 million ‘likes’ (Abhisit is closest with more than 650,000 fans). Both the Democrats and PTT make extensive use as Facebook as an online ‘anchor’. Their Facebook Pages act as a centre point from which all other activity campaign online – such as video chats, photos, policy issues etc – can be found.
The Democrats have also experimented with Facebook ads but, as I have heard Thais question, is a Facebook advert really going to make someone decide their political allegience?
I suspect that many Facebook ‘fans’ are likely to have already chosen their preferred candidate before ‘liking’ the candidate’s Facebook page. As Facebook updates are published to fans only (although friends of fans may see updates and interactions) the medium is much more closed than Twitter, and through its community-style platform it reinforces opinions and provides information to existing supporters.
That said, those fans that do follow political figures on Facebook can, like Twitter users, enjoy personal content and information in real-time.
Another similarity to Twitter, is the media’s use of Facebook to source information. For example, a Facebook note recently published by Abhisit was used by the BBC as the basis for this article.
While not a tool for canvassing the mass market, Facebook has changed how parties can interact with their followers, particularly those that target urban-based internet users.
Often overlooked when addressing social media, blogs play a very important role when it comes to political communication, particularly during election time when they report news, disseminate and discuss issues and provide alternative views to traditional media.
The Thai blogosphere is generally a vibrant one, given that English is neither a native language nor widely spoken to a high level. Thai blogs play a key role, and enjoy large followings for supplying native language content to those that do not read non-Thai websites.
However, political blogs are few and far between in Thailand due to free speech restrictions and the country’s active web censorship bureau which is noted for shutting down and blocking access to websites critical of the government and other state actors.
The lack of mainstream political bloggers was demonstrated clearly by the absence of a ‘politics’ category with the Thai blog awards.
Going back to social media and the internet itself, the issue of reach remains a key reason that more traditional media – such as TV, radio and print – remain a key focus for the electoral candidates.
However, the potential of social media is clear. In allowing candidates to self-publish their content, Facebook and Twitter provide an ideal platform for communicating with the country but, with just 20 million Thais enjoying internet access – and little more than half of these people using social networks – the content is currently going out to a small segment of the populace.
Thailand’s digital divide is what keeps usage of the web so limited. It isn’t just the issue if infrastructure – such as outdated data connections, lack of broadband services and no 3G telecom services – that limit the web. Financial constraints required to buy the necessary equipment and subscriptions mean many people’s internet experience comes from cyber cafes.
Mobile technology, and the growth of smartphones, has the potential to change this in the long-term but right even the most affordable devices are barely cheaper than budget PCs.
There needs to be a greater focus on the digital divide in general, but particularly if social media is going to be a key communication platform for the government and political parties.
Reference to Singapore
Singapore is quite unlike any of its neighbours. The country’s Western market-like affluence and far smaller, more urbanised population is, in digital terms, a major reason that social media was able to play an important big role in the country’s recent elections.
Of the country’s estimated 5 million population nearly 2.5 million are registered as members of Facebook, according to Socialbakers. Without even focusing on those registered to vote or indigenous to the country, Facebook is used by more than half of the population and more than 65% of those with internet access. This level of reach gives social media far greater significance in Singapore than in Thailand.
Singapore’s blogosphere became particularly political during the election with many non-politics bloggers discussing issues and providing opinions around the candidates, parties and elections.
Additionally, Singapore has a number of popular politics blogs which are able to avoid the country’s rigid publishing laws and publish content critical of the government, while shedding more light on opposition parties who are generally given little attention by mainstream media.
The government did counter some key blogs, by declaring them as news agencies, and thus forcing them to moderate their content accordingly.
But even in Singapore, social media’s influence didn’t dictate the election results.
While it is true that the result was arguably the government’s weakest electoral performance ever, the share and tone of voice online reflected a great level of opposition support which did not represent the final voting statistics.
Is social media influential in Thailand’s elections?
There is no doubt that social is an important channel for Thai politicians and political parties. Not only is social media responsible for an increasing chunk of campaign budgets, but it is allowing politicians an open platform to discuss topics and present their campaign.
While Thailand’s digital divide ensures that social media’s reach remains limited to a niche of the population, Twitter and Facebook have helped candidates reach key influencers who, in turn, through articles, research and commentary, have influenced larger numbers of the population through more traditional media.
Facebook and Twitter have revolutionised the way that political parties and figures communicate publicly and with their own fans. It is showing potential to change the dynamic of electoral communication but – for communicating with the country at large – it is not yet a greater priority than traditional media.