As Bangkok ground to a halt during the first few days of the current protests, the number of fans of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva on social networking sites shot up, averaging over a thousand new fans a day and now stands at just over 120,000. Finance Minister Korn Chartikavanij similarly saw a rise in followers and now stands at around a third of that, at 33,000.
Contrast this to Thaksin Shinawatra's Twitter followers which, at the time of writing, was just over 76,000. Chances are his followers would number more than the Prime Minister's if only he did not spend his days blocking everyone who does not agree with him to the extent that there is now a new hashtag on Twitter, #TKblock, and group, @thaksinblocksme, that is, as its name suggests, Tweeting about people whom Thaksin has blocked.
But does it matter? 120,000 to 76,000? As someone Tweeted "Yes, the Democrats will win the next election if Facebook users have 10 votes each."
It does matter beyond just the numbers. It matters because one side has mastered the art of social media, while the other is filled with good wishes but little substance.
Not a day goes by that mainstream media does not mention Thaksinlive and what he wrote on his Twitter account, be it his cold that did not result in any hoarseness, or his business dealings in Montenegro or Russia. That is how social media is played out. Thaksinlive generates the social buzz, which is picked up by mainstream media, amplified and then propagated throughout the system.
Think of the old days of the vinyl record. You first need a pre-amplifier to amplify the tiny signal before it goes into the amplifier and is fed to loudspeakers. Thaksin is the record, Twitter is the pre-amplifier and mainstream media is the amplifier.
By contrast, Abhisit seems to be taking a haphazard approach to social media. In the early days, he seemed to be tweeting himself via @PM - abhisit. Then it became clear as the tone changed that he was not Tweeting himself and that it was his media team. A backlash ensued, with many of his fans telling him not to lie and pretend to be what he is not. @PM - Abhisit responded by differentiating between first-party Tweets and third-party ones by appending a note saying "working team" to his Tweets. Then someone decided after a while that it was not fun anymore and stopped Tweeting altogether.
Nobody bothers to re-tweet or discuss boring, safe, press releases, as many big companies found out after their first foray into social media. Rather than pushing information out, it is about offering useful information (or offers) for people to discuss and disseminate because they want to. This is search engine optimisation, but using the human brain and whims and likes as the engine, not a Google algorithm.
The sad thing is that the Prime Minister is squandering a great chance to do something and set the record straight. 120,000 fans is a big number. To put it in perspective, Intel worldwide has 70,000 (Intel Thailand has 8,000). The Apple iPhone has 480,000 fans on Facebook, again worldwide. In that light, our Prime Minister is still doing very well.
In politics, David Cameron, leader of the UK opposition Conservative party, has 18,500 fans and it is a safe bet that the Conservatives' social media team budget is greater than the Thai Democrat Party's entire media budget combined. Outgoing PM Gordon Brown has but 6,500 between two groups. The Conservatives, despite such tiny numbers by Thai standards, have a very good social media strategy, Tweeting events and debates in parliament live with witty, informative commentary added.
Read into those numbers what you will but the point is, thanks to the protests, Abhisit now has an unprecedented opportunity to leverage social media in Thailand to reach out to a large swathe of the electorate and opinion leaders in a way that was never possible before in the brief history of Thai democracy in.
What could he do? Right now, his Facebook fan page is littered with short quotes from the PM followed by thousands of hysterical fans saying "fight on" or "we love you" or words to that effect. But it could be so much more.
Finance Minister Korn does a much better job with his 33,000 followers, posting a combination of quips, news clippings and the occasional rant that does generate traditional media interest, most notably the one where he said that all 76 billion baht frozen from he-who-cannot-be-named should have been confiscated. The PM could do worse than following in those (long) footsteps.
If I were Abhisit's PR advisor, I would tell him to use this opportunity to do more than can be done in a five minute blurb on TV while responding to a horde of bloodthirsty reporters. Essays and reflections, such as the type Korn uses, are one idea, but what of multimedia analysis?
The doctored "I want unrest" audio clip is a prime example. The protesters keep playing a clip of Abhisit's voice apparently saying that he wants bloodshed and violence in the lead-up to last April. Forensics experts have already proven that it was a cut and paste job, removing words like "not" to reverse the meaning of the message, much of which was sourced from the PM's own weekly TV programme.
The interesting thing is how this issue has been spun. The protesters accept that it has been cut, but cut to protect the identity of third parties in the room and that the words are still Abhisit's words. How has the PM responded? The Purple Snail channel formerly known as Channel 11 last weekend responded by holding an interview with forensic scientist Dr Porntip Rojanasunand. She said that the clip was doctored with a simple software program.
The clip was cut and pasted to distort the facts. One side says it was cut to protect a third party; the other says it was cut with software audio editing tools. That is not the way to wage a media war. It is the same logic that led to Clinton being impeached for lying to the senate under oath only to be found guilty of sexual misconduct.
What should be done is to take the clip and show, perhaps in a video, exactly how a portion could be created. Take that very Channel 11 video stream and juggle it around to get an exact copy of the doctored tape to prove to anyone with half a brain that the tape is a fabricated lie. Better yet, recreate it right down to the exact waveforms and background noise to eliminate all doubt.
Abhisit can say again and again that it was doctored. His office can release reports by experts saying it was doctored to the media to summarise and print. But only by going direct via the Internet does he have the chance of actually showing beyond all reasonable doubt not only that it was doctored, but to show exactly how it was doctored.
In a way, it is what is happening with digital TV in many countries. Advertisements are but 15-second stubs. Press a button on the remote control and an in-depth five-minute presentation of the item being advertised can be seen. Advertisers are happy to pay more for this targeted advertising. Instead of spending a minute skimming over just one topic, the PM could touch on four topics for 15 seconds each and tell the media and everyone to check out the fine print on his Facebook fan page, increasing media efficiency immensely.
That is but one example. If the Democrat party fails to see how the world has changed - see this great opportunity that has arisen from the crisis and use it to its advantage the way it so obviously could in the eyes of Netizens - perhaps it does not deserve to remain in power and should go the way of the dinosaurs.