Facebook and Thai politics: Press ‘Like’, and hope for the best
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Facebook and Thai politics: Press ‘Like’, and hope for the best

ON the night of June 26 in Bangkok, the Thai police arrested 14 student activists for staging a non-violent demonstration against the junta. They were then charged with sedition and are now being detained. Following the incident, videos, live reports and political statements flooded Facebook. The New Democracy Movement emerged as a new page, demanding that the junta unconditionally release the students. Meanwhile, on the same social network, the junta’s supporters justified the arrests, claiming there were vested political interests behind the student protest.

Amid the junta’s ban on political gatherings, people are turning to Facebook as a platform for political discussion. Since the coup last year, the media space for critical political reportage has been shrinking. Hoping to stabilize the political situation, the junta has closed down a number of political TV stations and put pressure on journalists. Junta leader Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha has even offered teach the media how to ask the right questions, while plain-clothes military officers last week visited political news website Prachatha. Thai Public Broadcast Station (Thai PBS) is currently facing a fine after airing a program about the background of the 14 arrested students.

Out of the total 68 million people in Thailand, 30 million are on Facebook, according to a 2014 survey by the Digital Advertising Association of Thailand, which also said that user activity is much higher than the global average. By examining social media from 2010-2012, Facebook Politics, a thesis by information activist Arthit Suriyawongkul, also found an increase in the freedom to address prohibited issues. The paper also noted Facebook provides a better opportunity for political participation.

The fast and eccentric nature of content on social media also draws people in, with the latest social dramas and controversies, and information they cannot get from conventional media. And thanks to the junta’s tight control on everything else, the flow of political information on social media has been growing rapidly.

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This photo from television shows the blue screen with military crests that replaced all TV programming in Thailand immediately after last year’s coup. Pic: AP.

In hindsight, it makes sense that the junta would try to block the access to Facebook in the days after last year’s coup, as asserted by the multinational telecom Telenor Group. Although the service was soon restored after national outcry, the junta continued to monitor the social media and even embedded a phishing Facebook App on banned websites to try get information on users. In addition, Facebook figures show a sharp rise in content removal requests from Thai authorities after the coup, who at one point even warned it’s a crime to ‘like’ an anti-junta post.

That doesn’t seem to stop the users, though. Sarcastic memes and provocative comments against the junta are as easy to find as cat videos on Thai Facebook. Yet despite less censorship, Facebook might not be the best place for rational political discussion. Besides hate speech, manipulation and self-censorship, the social network can easily become an echo chamber, where one’ news feed gets tailored, with the help of Facebook’s algorithm, to a user’s political ideology; although a study published in journal Science suggests that such pitfalls largely depend on the individual’s use. Yet, if we fail to open ourselves to the opposite political ideology, we’re more likely to get the information we side with on Facebook, which is only likely to make the country even more polarized.

On some occasions, though, people seem to come together almost unanimously on Facebook. Last month, for instance, when inner Bangkok was severely flooded after a storm, people, pro- or anti-coup, made fun of governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra and his water tunnel project that failed to drain a single drop from the swamped city.

T he political use of Facebook is more likely to polarize than harmonize Thai users, yet many of them will embrace it in a time when a human rights conference gets shut down and a peaceful demonstration can land you seven years in prison. In a heartfelt Facebook post by one of the professors visiting the imprisoned students, he passed one on the student’s words: “Please keep on posting. Please keep sharing stuff, to keep this going.” While it remains to be seen if all the likes and shares can transpire into real change, that political activities are only viable online aptly testifies what a sad and oppressed state Thailand has become.