A new 'chill' is coming to Thailand
Given their open and highly-accessible nature, social media platforms — such as Facebook — should be a platform for the promotion of free speech. However, as Thai society gets more polarised and divided along political lines, social media can end up creating a raft of problems that could ultimately lead to the stifling of free speech in an unprecedented manner.
Although the memory of prolonged street protests followed by hateful media propaganda characteristic of the colour-coded protests that predated the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) regime may have started to fade, an equivalent rift is still alive and well in the aftermath of the March 24 general election. And during this period, the rift is nowhere near quite as visible and vivid as it is in the realm of online political communication.
Smear campaigns and slanderous accusations are regular features of any electoral system, but Thailand’s election surpassed the “norm” as countless disinformation campaigns in the form of fake news, doctored images, edited video, and even content that endorsed outright witch hunts, snuck their way into mainstream media by way of social media channels. Worse still, this content is often picked up by partisan media, which then use the items to further polarise society.
Aside from the issue of disinformation, people are also increasingly choosing to communicate in their “comfort zone” — a safe bubble shared with like-minded individuals, families and/or friends — which effectively creates an “echo chamber”, where ideas that conform to the group’s beliefs are absorbed while others that do not adhere to their viewpoint get censored out.
Worse yet, social media channels allow users to pick and choose the content that we want to see, allowing partisans to block out the views of their opposition simply by pressing the “unfriend” and/or “unfollow” icon. Some people go further, by bombarding those who oppose their views with hate messages that perpetuate existing stereotypes and societal divisions — a problem that we know can spill-over to the real world and affect actual relationships.
During the height of the red shirt movements in the early 2010s, it was common to see red-shirt symphatisers labelled as “red water buffaloes” by their opponents — a label that was seen to signify the backward and uneducated classes that the group were seen to represent. However, as the decade draws to a close, the metaphor has shifted from “red” to “orange” — the colour of the Future Forward Party (FFP), which is now mounting a significant challenge to the existing establishment.
Most of the FFP’s supporters come from the younger generation, who were drawn by the party’s anti-NCPO stance as well as its progressive ideologies, which are centred around the idea of transforming society along a more liberal path.
The party has come under a barrage of criticism for its alleged anti-monarchical disposition. The party’s secretary-general, Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, was a member of the Nitirat Group — an association of progressive legal academics who actively advocated against Article 112 of the Criminal Code, also known as the the lèse majesté law. Meanwhile, its party leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, is known as a supporter of the Fah Diew Kan (“Same Sky”), a publisher known for producing left-wing progressive journals and books.
During His Majesty the King’s coronation earlier last month, some royalists pointed out the FFP disrespected the monarchy by not changing its Facebook cover photo to mark the occasion, like other political parties did.
All these allegations combined have quickly escalated the most recent anti-monarchy allegation made against a key member of the FFP, spokeswoman Pannika Wanich, into a full-blown witch hunt. Within 24 hours of Facebook photos of her from nine years ago surfacing, Thai netizens went into a frenzy. #ChorScumofEarth (Chor is Ms Pannika’s nickname) became a trending topic on Twitter and scores of comments posted of Facebook made it clear that Ms Pannika no longer has a place in Thailand.
The pictures, which were allegedly leaked by the government’s own Information Operation (IO) units, saw Ms Pannika battling not only mounting criticism, but also increased snooping on her personal life, with more people collecting private information and publicly releasing it against her wishes. In the case of Ms Pannika, her father and the schools she had attended have been accused as the source of her “dangerous” attitude.
Ms Pannika is now facing possible legal charges and social sanctions, even before a probe into her alleged crime is opened. As disapproval across social media platforms continues to swell, Ms Pannika seems to have been subjected to a trial by press — way before any legal proceedings on her case begin.
What happened to Ms Pannika should be considered as having a “chilling” effect in two ways. First, it should be considered as such because the case against her serves as a deterrent to other people from posting about their views on politics and the monarchy without restraint.
It may lead to a “chilling” of the heated debates on social media, by way of increased control by the central government, which is particularly feared by academics and journalists.
While social media users are not all journalists, voicing opinions on such platforms has made them publishers of sorts, leading to more scrutiny over their comments. When the user is a public figure like Ms Pannika, whatever might have been posted without much care years ago could come back and haunt her.
A graduate student who has studied media law and policy with me voiced this opinion about the Pannika case:
“This reminds me of the right to be forgotten that we studied in class. It is not only privacy right now that is under fire, but also this right not to be perpetually stigmatised as a consequence of some action in the past.”
Ms Pannika’s case may have a “chilling” effect on the offline domain as well — research carried out by the University of Edinburgh showed most social media users feel that they are under constant surveillance by their peers, and as such, often resort to self-censorship to stick to existing norms out of fear of being socially reprimanded.
One of my relatives who is in his mid-twenties admitted having to hold his political opinions, his support for the FFP, and his sympathy for Ms Pannika to himself.
“It sometimes struck me that the older generation have no respect of our right to think and express ourselves independently. And living in an extended Thai family even online, I can’t help feeling being constantly spied on by my elders. Expressing my candid political views can get me in hot water. So I just shut up mostly,” he said.
While there is a clear benefit to be gained in having everyone thinking along the same lines, democracy needs diversity and checks and balances to work out. Given the highly social nature of surveillance that prevails in Thailand’s online sphere, one needs to revisit if such behaviour — such as, the malicious doxing of personal information — will truly lead to liberty and freedom of speech under a democracy.
Chulalongkorn University Professor
Prof Pirongrong Ramasoota teaches and researches on media, communication and society at the Faculty of Communication Arts, Chulalongkorn University.