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Thailand's red shirts and yellow shirts battle it out on Facebook

Facebook and other social networking sites are popular tools for Thailand's political yellow shirts, and to a lesser extent their red shirt opponents, in the Thai season of political turmoil. But the sites are amplifying social divisions, say some Thais.

By Correspondent / May 24, 2010

Pro-government yellow shirt demonstrators sing during a rally in Bangkok April 29. Facebook and other social networking sites are popular tools for Thailand's political yellow shirt and red shirt protesters.

Eric Gaillard/Reuters

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Bangkok

Social networking sites, such as Facebook, have become a battleground in Thailand, providing a platform for the spread of news and information as the country still reels from two months of political violence in Bangkok that has left at least 88 people dead.

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In the West, it's not unusual for speech online to be more vitriolic than in person or for like-minded political groups to gather and complain on websites. But this forum for communication has grown dramatically in recent months here, and arguably, the current context in Thailand is more volatile than in most nations; the result can be real violence.

In Thailand, the online politicking has fueled hate speech, rumor mongering, and vigilante campaigns by ultra-conservatives to "out" opponents and harass them in real life. At least one such Facebook group has been shut down after complaints to administrators.

The use of Facebook to muster political support and hound opponents has sown divisions even among close friends, with some Thais being ostracized by their circle for refusing to join a friend's Facebook petition. Peer pressure and intolerance can be greater on Facebook than in real life, say Thai users. In general, Thais put great stock in politeness and in avoiding heated arguments. But these norms fall away on social networking sites.

“It’s an even stronger division than face to face. In real life, we have manners. When we get together we know we should behave,” says Wit Pimkanchanapong, an artist in Bangkok.

Since March, when red-shirted protesters took to the streets of Bangkok to call for snap elections, the number of Facebook users in Thailand has risen by 40 percent to roughly 3.6 million according to Facebakers.com, a website that tracks Facebook statistics.

The red shirts draw support from Thailand’s rural and working poor, in contrast to rival yellow shirts favored by Bangkok’s middle class. As a result, fewer red shirts own computers and join social networking sites. This demographic split means that Facebook, which is popular among white-collar professionals, skews to anti-red views, as does much of Thailand's newspapers and television.

The yellow shirts, a collection of royalists, businessmen, and the urban middle class, support the current government. The red shirts backed former Thai leader Thaskin Shinawatra and his allies. The yellow shirts helped depose him.

Censorship

That natural bias is exacerbated by government censorship of red-shirt websites and Facebook pages, says Sarinee Achavanuntakul, co-founder of the Thai Netizen Network, a free-speech group in Bangkok. An official red-shirt Facebook page has been blocked. Most red shirts turn instead to community radio stations for news, which are often equally inflammatory and partisan.

Until recently, social networking sites were used mostly to post goofy photos and play games, says Ms. Sarinee. That changed when the red-shirt protests began in March. Supporters of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who has his own Facebook page, began voicing their opposition to the protests and forming political groups. One group even staged their own real-life "multicolored" protests against the red shirts.

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