“Thank you Mark Zuckerberg,” said Saowaluk, a Thai protestor and part of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) movement that took to the streets in Thailand in August 2013 and early 2014. “Facebook made this protest successful.” Her words echo those of many protestors across the world since the Arab Spring in 2011 to the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong earlier this year.
In a world where the Big Three—Facebook, Twitter and YouTube—have irrevocably shaped the landscape of communication, social media has been seen as a force for justice in revolutionizing protest movements. In a country like Thailand, where 28 million of the 67 million people are Facebook users, social media has been widely praised as the impetus behind the success of political mobilization within polarized publics. Yet social media is not a panacea for the problems of collective action, nor is it a “silver bullet” for political change. It is a weapon that can be wielded by both sides, and ultimately may do more harm to protestors than good.
The Importance of Imagery
Firstly, social media has been considered instrumental as a visual form of information transfer. The PDRC protests in late 2013 and early 2014, for instance, used the “Underwear Hero”—a middle aged man who rushed the barricades with a fire extinguisher in nothing but his white underwear—as a symbol of their movement. His picture was shared across thousands of Facebook pages, expanding the protests’ popularity.
In an interview with the HPR, Penchan Phoborisut—a Ph.D. candidate from Thailand at the University of Utah studying the role of social media in political uprisings—discussed memes as a method of political communication. “If we look at the study of social movements in the past, it focuses on the speeches—but these days we don’t really see any speeches, any leaders—and we don’t care.” As with the “Underwear Hero”, it is the bottom-up iconography infiltrating new political narratives that is revolutionary about social media. Political critique comes in the form of cultural productions characterized by their informality and eye-catching brevity. “No one is going to care if you write a status update and you’re nobody, but if you create this meme with a picture and if it’s a funny idea, a good idea or a sharp critique … people are likely to share it and adopt it, and it’s going to be traveling along the lines of a network.”
The idea of meaningful public contribution to the political sphere is a compelling one, especially in Thailand. According to University of Leeds professor Duncan McCargo, Thailand has long had a top-down information order where only a handful of elite columnists participate in public political analysis and discussions. “If you look at the front page of the Thai Rath newspaper, there’s always one political story that [when translated into English] becomes 10 pages of English text … every one of which is filled with quotations of what some government official or politician said,” he said in a conversation with the HPR.
Journalists are frequently restricted to reporting straight, neutral facts and invoking the views of Phu Yai (political elders) as a basis of authority. The tradition of censorship has prevented average citizens from expressing their views publicly. “What people like about social media is that it releases them from a top-down information order,” said McCargo, but he adds that that the new technology has not changed the Thai political landscape as dramatically as others have alleged. “There’s a great deal of endless rehashing and reposting of other peoples’ ideas, and many of these other people are from the usual cast of characters who would have been quoted in the newspapers anyway.”
The problems of social media
Some question the claim that social media makes as large a difference in national politics. In a New Yorker article, Malcolm Gladwell argues, “The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. … Social networks are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires.” Social media may increase the general mass support base of political protests, but it doesn’t always lead to real participation—especially when that participation is high risk. During the PDRC protests, the word “ไทยเฉย” (Thai Chuey, or literally “Inert Thais”) evolved as a slang phrase to chastize those who posted their political opinions on Facebook but did not make the effort to attend the protests in person.
Moreover, Clay Shirky, in his book Here Comes Everybody, makes the argument that as protestors increasingly take their opinions online, it becomes easier for repressive governments to turn social media a into low-cost tool for suppression. For example, in July 2014 the Thai military circulated a fake Facebook application that collected the personal information of more than 8000 individuals. It was supposedly legal under Article 26 of the 2007 Computer Crimes Act, which mandated the collection of user information for security purposes of the state. A statement by the Thai Technology Crime Suppression Division (TCSD) read, “[T]his way, the TCSD can manage more witnesses which could lead to more prosecutions and make the online community clean.”
Such actions this July are an ominous portent for the future of social media in Thai mass-based political insurrection. Unlike other mass-based movements that have used social media, the political conflict that plays out across the landscape of Facebook, Twitter and Line (a popular messaging application in Thailand) is not one that pits two dialectical sides of state and public social media power against each other, as academics like Christian Fuchs and Daniel Trottier have claimed in Social Media, Politics and the State. McCargo identified what he calls the “social censorship” that occurs in Thailand. “What I found when I looked at the media was that different groups are trying to suppress or intimidate other groups from expressing their forms of opinion,” he said. “A lot of political censorship and intervention may come from other people … [like] political extremists who may be doing the state’s work for them.” This public policing manifests on Facebook when users “unfriend” each other as a response to expressions of what they believe are the wrong political opinion, and is a testament to just how politicized Thai society has become.
Social media can be repressive. While social media has been seen as a force of transformation that levels the political playing field in many countries facing authoritarian rule, it may rather be a force of divisiveness that leaves the disunited public vulnerable to the domination of the political elite—whether it be the military, or leadership on both sides of the political cleavage. In deciding whether it warrants Manuel Castells’ label of “networks of outrage and hope”, it is imperative that we critically examine all of social media’s effects before blindly ascribing to it qualities that are solely positive. Social media, like the Underwear Hero, may expose too much for its own good—it clothes itself in an exciting spirit of empowerment but is stripped bare of the armor or the force required to make real change.
Image credit: Flickr / Anton Strogonoff