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.
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.
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.
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.
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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