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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.

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Social networking sites, in theory, allow the curious to seek out opposing views and join groups that they might not encounter offline. But some users warn that Facebook is quickly becoming a powerful magnifier of Thailand’s social divisions, fueling extremist ideology and stifling rational debate.
“When I connect with friends on Facebook, I instinctively tend to trust their opinion. That’s very risky. If my network is very one-sided… this kind of activity can get out of hand,” says Sarinee.

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Calls to violence?

One group that fits this description calls itself "Social Sanction," which publishes the addresses and phone numbers of red-shirt opponents accused of defaming the Thai monarchy. On one cached page, it urged followers to attack a named opponent. The group was shut down recently after complaints that it violated Facebook’s hate speech rules.

Such vigilantism has real-world parallels: a Thai man was arrested last month and charged with lese majeste, or defaming the royal family, over a Facebook posting. The crime is punishable in Thailand by up to 15 years in jail and prosecutions have soared since a military coup in 2006. Thai authorities encourage citizens to report on any defamatory comments, including online speech.

An active Facebook group with nearly 500 members is called "Enjoy the Red Body" and features a bloody photo of a slain protester. Members gloat over the deaths of red shirt members during protest violence, in which more than 80 people died, mostly civilians.

In one posting, a man describes a joyful dream filled with red-shirt corpses. “I dream that Thailand is lifted up. I run and press my feet on the dead body!” he writes. Another asks if red shirts are really human and have the same heart as other Thais.

Not all anti-red groups are so extreme. But much of their rhetoric emphasizes loyalty to the nation and the throne, tapping a familiar theme of unity in the face of enemies who try to exploit divisions.

Conservative elites, including the military, have long taken this approach to running Thailand, says Chris Baker, a historian based in Bangkok and author of several books on Thailand.

“The whole right-wing message is constructed around the idea that the nation is under threat -- from colonial powers, from communists, and now from reds -- so what is needed is strong rule and absolute submission,” he writes by email.

Amornsri Pattanasitdanggul, a public-relations manager in Bangkok, doesn’t want to submit. But she wonders if she has to bite her tongue when it comes to discussing politics. Her Facebook page has 242 friends, some of whom she has known since school. But her mildly skeptical views have met a tide of incredulity from partisan friends.

“Most of my friends are anti-red. They like to talk to people who have the same opinion. They are irritated when they are faced with different opinions,” she says.
Ms. Amornsri says she tries to express her opinions online as coolly as possible. But she says the emotional tone of much of the debate on Facebook leaves little room for reasoned dissent and has left her pessimistic about her polarized nation.

“When we meet we don’t talk about it. Then we go back home and drrrrr!” she says, miming a frenzied keyboard tapping.

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