Despite the continuing state crackdown on some political websites and on-line political posters, the internet has become the most open public space for political debate and discussion about the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. The mainstream print media, often regarded as more open and independent compared to the broadcast media, pale by comparison with the nascent internet news websites, blogs and online political-posting. Increasingly, the hegemonic control by the state and the mainstream media over the idealized portrayal and discourse of the monarchy is slipping and no longer tenable due to the differing portrayals and critical discussions online that simply by-pass traditional media outlets.
Newspapers are more or less a top-down one-way communication medium with some open space for a select number of outside specialist writers and a limited space for letters to the editor, which are selected and subject to editing and censorship. The taboo status in mainstream Thai print media of discussion of the role of the monarchy in Thai politics and society leads to a state of paralysis and heavy censorship as well as self-censorship when it comes to what the print media will or can report about the monarchical institution. Fear of breaking the controversial lèse majesté law, with its maximum sentence of 15 years imprisonment, also makes it doubly difficult for the print media, which are for-profit corporations, to want to perform a public function in critically presenting news and analysis about the role of the Thai monarchy.
On May 28, 2009, Prasong Lertrattanawisut, President of Thai Journalists Association (TJA) spoke at a media symposium organized by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES) at the senate on why Thai mainstream media censored itself over news relating to the lèse majesté law. “Why we do not dare report lèse majesté cases? Because we have been taught [that way]. It’s a culture that has deep roots.” (The quote in Prasong’s own words in Thai: ‘khadi min thammai sue mai klaa sanoe [phro] thuk son, pen wattanatham thi fang luek’.)
But the power of the traditional gatekeeper of news and public political discussion has been challenged and deeply shaken.
The situation is almost the total opposite on online news websites and online posting venues. Starkly different, passionate, and controversial views are aired online by different groups of Thai citizens, and even by some foreigners who either live in Thailand or have a special interest in Thai political affairs. Unlike the print media, anyone with access to the internet can simply express their political views in debates on sites like prachatai.com, which take place in real time and across continents and with little or no censorship. The process is essentially more participatory and inclusive as well as interactive, because posters no longer have to be reduced to mere passive consumers of news and commentary. Online postings enable people critical of the lèse majesté law and certain aspects of the monarchy to express their views and connect with one another. They now realize that their views are not that isolated and many do indeed share their sense of alienation and concern. They can also engage in debate or discussion with those who think differently on political matters.
The Nation’s editorial stated on September 6, 2009, “People [online] can learn from so many others of diverse background, age and gender, from people whom they may otherwise never meet in life and could deliberate, form a common judgment on particular issues if not eventually meet and act together off-line.
“The strength of online political debate and networking may also serve as a new force in countering what is otherwise overwhelming state power and control over most of the broadcast media…”
Here the masses are no longer just an audience to be fed with the ‘correct’ information and views. The relationship is no longer top down or one-directional or even two-directional, but multi-directional interactive communication. Posters can instantaneously provide different or opposing perspectives and at any length as they no longer have to wait for the blessing of the editorial page editor to select their letters for publication or wait for the television news to interview them for a 10-second sound bite. Posters can also try to name and frame the issues in a different way from news and commentary articles. This helps re-determine how others look at the issue and seek solutions. The mainstream media no longer have a monopoly. It is also no longer just about having the right information, news or views, but about facing and discussing different views and choices together. In some instances two or more online posters pursue a conversation or debate back and forth at considerable length with passion and in earnest. One example is a thread on the lèse majesté law by posters under the pen names of ‘trep’ and ‘hobby’ and ‘Joy’ and a few others engaged with one another in explaining their political stance.
“the idea of a unifying symbol is too [sic] keep everyone united. If it’s not monarchy the state would have to find something else. And someone will ALWAYS feel excluded and oppressed,” wrote trep on September 2, 2009 at 14.03 on the prachatai.com English site.
A reply came from ‘Hobby’ at 15.02 on the same thread stating: “I … think LM laws are intertwined in this whole political mess because they are used as a political tool to crush rivals, cower the people, and also provide cover for certain undemocratic [sic] behind the scene manoeuvres [sic].”
(For more see the whole thread under the article ‘There She Was: Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul on The New York Times’ by Pravit Rojanaphruk, prachatai.com’s English site, August 1, 2009)
It should be recognized that collective discussion as an aggregate is much more powerful than isolated individual thinking disengaged from collective thinking and conversation. Robert Kingston, senior Associate at Kettering Foundation says, “I don’t know what I think until we have talked.”
Online posters can also choose to react when they want to, so avoiding the problem of speech fright that plagues some people who dislike or lack confidence in speaking in public. It also enables posters to think, reflect and contemplate deeply before reacting, and they can conveniently revisit the dialogue and type their thoughts down at their own pace. Essayist Arthur Krystal noted in The New York Times Review of Books (September 27, 2009, ‘When Writers Speak’, p. 27) that Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker believes: “thinking precedes writing and that the reason we sound smarter when writing is because we deliberately set out to be clear and precise, a luxury not usually afforded us in a conversation.”
The internet can be a space where people learn and exchange differing political views, especially on the sensitive issue of the role of the Thai monarchy in society and politics. Most people would almost certainly not be willing to engage in honest and substantive exchanges offline with people who they do not know due to the legal constraints and a lack of trust. The level of anonymity allowed in this virtual pubic sphere makes possible more frank and open discussions. The lèse majesté law nevertheless visibly constrains most if not all posters, especially those residing in Thailand. Be that as it may, the level of online discussion on the role of the monarchy has far exceeded what the mainstream media would be willing to engage in and represents a hope for a more open and democratic society. While online posters are likely to be monitored by the state for venting controversial views and a few internet posters have been arrested, the debate about the role of the institution, and specifically the merits and demerits of the lèse majesté law, continues unabated.
This constitutes a continuing test case for online political posting as a new public sphere. Can people really hold constructive discussions, debates, dialogues, and perhaps even deliberations on the internet about the monarchy in Thailand, and by doing so foster democratic culture? Or is it just a new and convenient place for a number of mostly anonymous posters to rant and unleash political diatribes which may eventually discourage others who want to discuss and deliberate from different political vantage points?
From the writer’s perspective, the list of reasons why one might want to be cautious about the prospect of online political posting venues as a meaningful democratic space is quite extensive. Here are some of them.
First, it attracts the basest ranting, vituperation and propaganda. All kinds of invective have been used on prachatai.com and it may not be decent to reproduce any here but one can also see the same thing on the Thai-language site. Many of these people may have little or no interest whatsoever in what others think and simply wanted to express their ideology-driven views and hatred. Many posters are simply stuck at naming and shaming their opponents instead of naming and framing the issue. It has become a zero-sum war.
Some people tend to read, look at and comment on only what they want to read, look at and comment on. They have little or no interest in really engaging in any meaningful discussion or dialogue with those with different political views. These people just post their views or bigotry – period. Although posters can name and frame the issue by themselves and avoid getting dragged down by online ranting, not all posters are necessarily reading the same set of exchanges as they all must make the decision to either read all or just some of the posts. (In a sense, being physically present in a face-to-face dialogue or discussion is no guarantee that participants will truly listen or participate either).
Writer Farhad Manjoo wrote in his 2008 book, “True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society”, “[T]oday you can watch, listen to, and read what you want, whenever you want; seek out and discuss, in exhaustive and insular details, the kind of news that pleases you … we’re also holding different facts … we’re now fighting over competing versions of reality.”
These posters tend to end up not really contributing to a real discussion, dialogue or even debate but they also in way depict the current level of angst about the issue. Raucous exchanges of invective at least tell us something about a situation which the mainstream media has tried to sanitize out of political awareness.
Others like Ian F. McNeely and Lisa Wolverton, author of ‘Reinventing Knowledge: From Alexandria to the internet’ believe serious debate and discussion is still a prerogative of academia. “Relatively few networked forums provide a truly democratic alternative to the focused, substantive, reasoned - and elitist – debate that still governs the [academic] disciplines.”
Second, the anonymous nature of many of the postings reduces the level of verifiability, transparency, sincerity, and trust. While all posters have the right to decide whether to reveal their true identity or not, it cannot be denied that anonymity and pen names raise questions about sincerity, accountability, authenticity, transparency, trustworthiness etc.
One may ask why these posters should prefer to remain anonymous or disguised under pen names. Is it because their families, colleagues and friends may disapprove of their political views? Are they afraid of a possible negative impact on their families or personal attacks? Or is it because they want to post views without having to be accountable? Or are some of these people suffering from a Batman syndrome and would rather mask their identities?
Some, such as a poster by the name of Dewy insisted to this writer, “one good thing about using an alias is that people will not look down on you because of your age or experience.” Another said he/she fears being assaulted for his/her views.
It is understandable if they want to remain anonymous for security reasons given the draconian nature of the lèse majesté law and heated passions over the issue, although one might also want to consider the impact it has on the quality of discussion and debate. Unfortunately, anonymity tends to encourage reckless ranting and invective among some of these posters. Using real names and identities may not be a true guarantee of honest and responsible posting but at least you know who you are supposed to be dealing with.
Rolan Kelts, a professor at the University of Tokyo, made this observation about online anonymity in Japan and elsewhere.
“The banal swill of anonymous postings oozing down the commentary sections of politically- or celebrity-oriented blogs and news sites worldwide is often crude and obscene enough to make one give up on civilization entirely. The displacement of the self and all of its earthly responsibilities affords us numerous opportunities to engage in careless, lazy or just bad behavior in the virtual realm, even as it may feel liberating at first.”
In some cases, people could get very negative about using pen names in political discussions. Danthong Breen, a member of the Union for Civil Liberty in Bangkok, urged Awzar Thi, a pen name, to “[p]lease declare yourself bravely for who you are…” in discussing the role of human rights activists in Southeast Asia. (See the article and following postings on ‘Danthong Breen’s response to Awzar Thi’s criticism of human rights activists in Thailand’, on prachatai.com’s English site, November 5, 2009)
Ironically, some question the real identity of fellow pen-name posters while using pen names themselves. A poster using the pen name of ‘Michael’ questions if a fellow online political poster by the pen name of ‘StanG’ is in fact the same person as a poster with the pen name of Trep. “StanG, I think you are probably Trep, an obsessive control-freak from an earlier series of blogs.” ‘StanG’ eventually confirmed that yes indeed he was ‘Trep’. “Yes, I am ‘trep’,” StanG replied. But then Michael went on to ask: “Stan G/Trep, please answer: Are you a former member of FCCT [Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand], now disbarred, an importer and seller of rare birds, & an LM accuser?” The answer was a denial. But how can anyone be so sure?
Another poster calling him/herself ‘Hobby’ also questioned in the same thread whether pen name posters under the name of Somsak and Plaadip were the same person who used the pen name Taro Mongkoltip on the New Mandala. website. (See all postings following Danthong Breen’s response to Awzar Thi, cited above, to see not only the manifestation of doubt but also an example of how serious and deep online discussion can be on the issue of Thai monarchy).
Given the widespread use of pen names to safeguard posters’ anonymity, even those who use their real names such as this writer cannot be believed by some. In an ironic twist, ‘StanG’, using a pen name, questioned the authenticity of Pravit Rojanaphruk’s article on lèse majesté which appeared in November. “It could have been ghosted by anybody, really. Or maybe they think Prawit’s [sic] name would add it some weight.” (See ‘StanG’ post on November 19, 2009 at 12.00 following Pravit Rojanaphruk’s A Short Compendium of Eccentric Words and Names Relating to Lèse Majesté Law on prachatai.com’s English site, November 12, 2009).
It must be added however that some regular posters develop a sense of camaraderie and exhibit rapport with one another and thus a sense of virtual community. Some posters ask where a particular pen name poster may be if he or she fails to post for a long time.
A poster using the pen name ‘Joy’ wrote to pen-name ‘Michael’ on November 21, 2009 at 16.25 saying: “BTW, thanks a lot Michael for your very informative tips about NGO work. I’m very busy with my current job but I feel it’s meaningless (i mean i seem busy but see what i do as pointless.) Hope to do something else (once I can have some free time) to add meaning to life.” In a following post, ‘Joy’ posted to ‘Michael’, ‘BTW, hope yr ulcers are gone by now. Take care.” (see the postings after Danthong Breen’s response to Awzar Thi’s criticism of human rights activists in Thailand’s article on prachatai.com English site)
Third, online participation comes with a barrier to entry. Not everyone has access to the internet or owns a computer. Not everyone is internet savvy or computer literate. Online discussion in Thailand is thus still limited to mostly the educated middle class and elite, although the trend is that the barrier to entry is becoming lower.
Fourth, could people end up becoming more passive as a result of feeling they have already let off their daily political steam once they have aired their political views and angst online? Does this zap a person’s will and inclination to meet and discuss politics with others offline, face-to-face and take matters onto the street?
Fifth, on controversial issues like the role of the monarchy in Thai society, it’s quite apparent now that sites such as prachatai.com and the like have come under state surveillance, thus posing legal risks and constraints to posters. How can there be a really open and frank discussion, debate, articulation and dialogue when this would risk imprisonment under the lèse majesté law or computer crimes law?
Some hardcore political websites have been blocked by the authorities. Others, like thaipoliticalprisoners.wordpress.com, an English-language site aimed at campaigning for political prisoners in Thailand have issued warnings: ‘Readers submitting to PPT from Thailand should be aware that the Thai government attempts to track e-mails that it considers might be associated with alleged computer crimes or lèse majesté. This may not yet be highly sophisticated, but PPT warns readers to be careful and to think creatively about how to avoid the government’s thought police.’ Elsewhere, unlike on prachatai.com, readers’ posts on political blogs have to be screened, edited or censored by the blogger first for fear of breaking the lèse majesté law and/or computer crimes law.
(For more information see Isriya Paireepairat’s 2008 Master of Science thesis on ‘Internet Censorship in Thailand’ at http://www.scribd.com/doc/6164567/Internet -Censorship-Thailand, and Pravit Rojanaphruk’s (2008) Lèse Majesté Law and Mainstream Newspapers’ Self-Censorship: The Upward Spiral Effect and its Reactions, available at: http://www.prachatai.com/05web/upload/HighNews/document/pravit.pdf.)
It is likely that some of these people will be able to speak more freely and more critically in private but private conversation is no public sphere. Those wanting to speak out critically and extensively, like former Chulalongkorn University political scientist-cum-Marxist Ji Giles Ungpakorn, have ended up wanted under the lèse majesté law. Ji found himself in self-imposed exile in Oxford, England. In a way, the sites have become a political flytrap. Some posters have resorted to using innuendo, allusion, aliases, nicknames, satire, deconstructionist techniques, suggestive remarks and analogies to proceed with sensitive discussions. This is relatively effective in circumventing or even subverting the lèse majesté law. But it can never replace a genuinely open and critical public discussion, however. One example of treading carefully is a post by someone using the name Thongchai Winichakul who posted the following when discussing Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul, a Thai woman who was arrested for lèse majesté and sentenced to 18 years in jail in 2009. Thongchai the poster wrote on the prachatai.com English site on November 11, 2009 at 07.50: “She said repeatedly that the xxx was behind the coup, supported the coup, interfered with politics, knew about the assassination of the previous xxx, and so on…” (for more see Thongchai’s posting on Danthong Breen’s response to Awzar Thi’s criticism of human rights activists in Thailand cited above.)
Here’s another example: On a web-board critical of the Thai monarchy called sameskyboard.com, a regular poster by the pen name of ‘mar char tae mar laew’ [I’m late but here already] has this message always accompanying his posts in Thai.
“I have only one father, my birth father. Although he doesn’t understand me sometimes, he loves [me] and would not allow anyone to take advantage of me. When I’m in need, without money or work, he reaches out to help. Most importantly, he has never lied to me and has never taken a single baht from me. Sometimes I do not love him but for certain he loves me all the time. And as of now I love him, without having to have someone convince me to love him and without having to have anyone to force me to love him too.”
“Everyone should be a good child.” (posted on December 1, 2009)
What one makes of such statement is up to one’s interpretation.
However, in Thailand, the state, the media and many royalists widely regard the king as ‘the father of the nation’ or ‘phor luang’.
(see the posting in Thai on sameskyboard.com/index.php?showtopic=40227&st=25)
Sixth, the power relationship between the writer of the commentary or news and posters who are mostly anonymous or use pen names remains unequal as the original articles are more prominent and get more exposure and publicity.
Seventh, without a moderator, it is very difficult to really think about choice or deliberation. The aim should be to construct an online venue as an open space and normalizing critical conversations about the role of the Thai monarchy as well as the merits of the lèse majesté law which would contribute to a critical and more realistic consideration of the subject and to the deepening of democracy and freedom of expression.
Eighth, on a highly divisive topic like the role of the monarchy, many ended up simply wanting to win the “debate” more in the mode of winner-takes-all and failed to try to reach across the aisle. Carmen Siriannia and Lewis A. Friedland in The Civic Renewal Movement. Community-Building and Democracy in the United States write: “[B]logosphere has, in many respects, begun to reproduce an information space that is very divided and partisan… Critics argue that the blogosphere fuels division, and in some cases rumor and character assassination, unconstrained by traditional journalistic norms and practices.”
This may be partially true but it need not be a case against online political postings per se as any reader and poster also has the ability to sift through and ignore unsubstantiated remarks and rumours. It is best to place more effort into how to foster a more critical public that can get the most out of limited circumstances, otherwise one may fall into the trap of excessive censorship on the internet which can only be harmful to democracy, freedom of expression and citizens’ mental well-being in the long run.
Experts in deliberations differentiate between dialogue and deliberation. In ‘The Deliberative Democracy Handbook’, Peter Levine, Archon Fung and John Gastil suggest that some issues should be tackled through a dialogue before any deliberation can take place due to the need to bridge linguistic, social, and epistemological chasms between different subgroups of the potentially deliberative body.
“One group may give greater weight to personal testimony, another to statistical evidence, and a third to correspondence with scholars and sacred texts … This final difference makes it hard to adjudicate competing claims, because each stands on distinct rhetorical ground, cast in terms of values that are not easily compared.
“When differences such as these exist within a group, dialogue can help participants come to recognize and understand one another’s point of view. Whereas deliberation focuses on policy choices, dialogue seeks accommodation, reconciliation, mutual understanding, or at the very least, informed tolerance… to create a group environment that is conducive to honest self-expression, careful self-reflection, and thoughtful probing and perspective taking.”
Views from Interviews
To offer different perspectives, this writer interviewed some Americans and one Thai scholar on the merit of online political posting in general.
Barbara Abrash, Director of Public Programs at New York University’s Center for Religion and Media and the Center for Media, Culture and History is sceptical about un-moderated online political discussion.
“You know enough about people that open democracy is a bad policy, do you?” asked Abrash, who stressed that un-moderated on-line, “open democracy doesn’t work”.
“What happens here is that hate groups are so organized and disproportionately represented. And they’re very smart about it,” she said, adding that some posters would write things like “your baby should be murdered.”
On the other hand, Abrash thinks people are still trying to invent norms on how to hold meaningful discussion online and on what is acceptable. “I think that what you have now are experiments. People don’t know how it’s going to work. Online, most of it is pornography or vicious … just think of these crazy [people] who think Obama is not an American citizen.”
Abrash believes that a huge shift towards online media is taking place and it is currently confusing. “How to begin to build new standard and practices and the idea here is that it has to come out by themselves… I think that we’re just in a huge shift and it’s confusing.”
Robert Dietz, Asia Program Coordinator at the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is also cautious about online political discussion, especially among the so-called anonymous posters.
“When you open up a discussion forum online, it often becomes degarded and dominated by one personality [type].”
On a more specific note, Dietz said Thailand’s internet political discussion has become “a broad-base societal discussion”.
“But there’s a bar … in term of access to get online. Political discussion in Thailand is significantly altered. But I still don’t think it represents the total society.”
Views and information supplied by anonymous online posters, said Dietz, pose a problem in terms of ‘veracity and verification’ and added that someone who uses his or her real name tends to be more believable whatever the person is trying to convey.
Dietz thinks the internet has become a field for government control. “It seems to me that everyone who wants to control the internet has a wide range of resources.”
In Thailand, the issue of the lèse majesté law has become “a focal point of disagreement” with one side wanting more political space, he but added “there’s more to Thai politics than just the King.”
Given deep reservations about un-moderated online discussion, Abrash presented an example of the anti-racist website NIOT.org which contains a page on comment policy.
The website’s Comment Policy, which is worth quoting at some length, states: “NIOT.org is a space for people to discuss strategies for responding to preventing hate in their communities. We encourage you to share your ideas, experiences, and support for each other through comments. However, NIOT.org is not an open forum… We retain the right to 1. Control content and documents. 2. Delete comments. 3. Permanently ban users who continually attempt to post comment that violate our commenting policy.
“We will not publish: 1. Anonymous comments. 2. Comments that do not address the topic of the post. 3. Hate speech. 4. Disrespectful or vulgar comments. 5. Slanderous comments or personal attacks.
“Please do remember that we moderate these comments at our discretion in order to maintain a safe and inclusive space…” (Compare this to prachatai.com web-board’s guidelines.)
Mike Buelow, Research Director for the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign who worked for the Associated Press for many years asked why anyone should want to read “unlimited anonymous ranting and raving” online and added: “I don’t read all of it. I’m not sure everybody does,” adding that American newspaper editors tend to select a wide range of views to be published on their letters to the editor column. “I’m not sure that reading 900 comments, some of which are raving and ranting, serves any purpose while one good comment would do it all”
Buelow went on to question the anonymous nature of many posters. “You don’t know where they’re coming from, whether they’re expert or not. I don’t know if [the space] is serving any purpose aside from letting people blow off steam.”
A leading Thai historian who asked not to be named considers some remarks by online posters as “vulgar, superficial and without respect for other people.” He said those wanting to criticize others harshly ought to use their real name. “I get turned off by the humiliation of others,” he said, adding that perhaps the anonymous status of posters makes them more prone to use abusive language.
“Newspapers are not that vulgar. The disrespect for others is due to the anonymous status. But if asked whether the virtual community [online] is a boon or not, the answer is ‘yes it is’,” he said, as a new form of venue for communication now exists. “But it’s very disrespectful and superficial. People get lazy [participating] in something that is sophisticated. Lately, more people are reading web boards and fewer books and newspapers. Why?”
Prof Lewis A. Friedland, of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin at Madison said the growth of internet posting venues is positive as “pluralism of opinion at the national scale is great.”
Friedland is rather optimistic about internet posting venues as a nascent public sphere. “I think it’s good overall. The opening up of the media ecology … Do they aggregate as public opinion? Clearly … but they’re not all good. Some of them are rightwing populism. I think it’s important to distinguish between democracy and populism. Blogospheres opened up room for more voices – but they don’t necessarily form a public sphere. To me a public sphere is a clear intersect,” he said, adding that it will be more beneficial to democracy if “opinion on the net become sufficiently refined and coherent.
“All points of view can enter and debate. But what is actually happening is angry rightwing opinion [taking over].
“What can we do to make it a ‘more genuine public sphere’ and not just opening up to it?” he opined, adding that perhaps some specific structures are needed.
Collective Challenge to online political posters
Online political posting sites such as prachatai.com are like public parks and require collective maintenance to nurture them as open spaces for political discussion, debate and dialogue. It’s up to all, or at least the majority of posters to ensure an open and democratic environment online by creating norms for critical and civil discussions of sensitive issues such as that of the role of the monarchy in Thai society and politics and limits on doing things that would degrade the site. The role of responsible posters is even more crucial in this nascent stage of online posting venue as a public sphere.
To be fair, one can find examples of both invective exchanges as well as meaningful discussions on prachatai.com when it comes to the topic of the monarchy.
In the final analysis, the credibility and efficacy of online posting site as a virtual public sphere which nurtures democracy and open discussion depends undeniably upon the quality of writers, readers and posters and how they react and relate to one another online. Posters’ collective actions will determine whether online posting sites such as prachatai.com can maintain themselves as truly open public spheres with critical posters that deepen democracy or whether virulent ranting and cheap propaganda will triumph. Together posters can try to ensure that the public sphere does not end up looking like an abused and badly maintained public toilet.
Political sites such as prachatai.com nurture the hope that one day the majority of Thai citizens may learn to normalize open and critical discussion about the role of the monarchy as part of a healthy, strong, open and democratic society which is in the long term interest of the country. The crucial point is that although the opinions of various posters may differ and they may not come to an agreement, at least they can have a ‘constructive disagreement’, to use David Mathews’ expression. It is also hoped that they will at least better understand why others think differently and disagree. This is vital for different sectors of Thai society to coexist peacefully and move forward. Earnestly engaged, online posting can nurture a basic capacity for dialogue and deliberation on such contentious issues as the lèse majesté law and the role of the monarchy.
Without excessive censorship or a moderator, it is up to the majority of posters to ensure that sites such as prachatai.com remain an asset to aspirations for an open and democratic society as well as an arena for people to exchange views and connect with one another. They can prove to the rest that indeed censorship is not beneficial, and is not the way to go, while open discussion constitutes a boon for democracy especially in the long term. Failing to achieve this, some will resort to more gossip and rumour and hold more grudges, so that the hope of seeking a common solution as well as a truly open and democratic society cannot be realized.
Some recommendations to posters and members of online political public spheres:
1) You can deepen democracy and foster freedom of expression if you express your thoughts responsibly. As much as possible, avoid invective, overgeneralization, rumour, stereotyping of people or groups of people, or making unwarranted accusations. Although online exchanges can quickly turn bellicose, ranting online may not necessarily be as bad as ranting at a face-to-face discussion as readers and posters can simply ignore it and filter out invective. Online ranting cannot cause real physical disruption as verbal ranting in real face-to-face meeting can. This highlights the do-it-yourself nature of learning from online posting sites. Thai society in general needs to learn more about holding critical and sensitive discussions, debates and dialogues on issues such as the monarchical institution in a civil and constructive fashion.
2) Try to respect differing opinions and tolerate free expression. As far as possible, respect political diversity. If you harbour political hatred, try to control it while expressing yourself. Differing views should be welcomed as an essential element of democracy with the recognition that it is perfectly natural for members of any society not to think alike.
3) Try to engage politely with other posters and/or writers in debate, argument, discussion and dialogue. Pursue dialogue at some length if you wish. You don’t always have to try to win an argument or condemn/denounce others and should consider the benefits of open political exchanges instead.
4) Learn from different opinions as it is crucial in a democracy to be aware of differing political views. Try to put yourself in another person’s shoes and avoid prejudice. Earnestly ask yourself why people think the way they do. If time is limited, try to read different views first. Think about the merit of other points of views and the trade-off of different beliefs and choices.
5) As far as possible, use your real name and identity as it tends to give more weight, accountability, transparency and sincerity to the discussion.
6) Consider how society can peacefully prosper with different political views and openness. Care for online public spheres as you would care for a public park that is communally owned. Think about how you can make the park better and more accessible. It is important to try to ensure that the sphere is as open, civil and inclusive as possible.
7) Foster a new culture and norms for online discussion that go deeper than the conventional one-way top-down communication process of the mainstream mass media. Do not think of yourself as just a reader or a consumer of news, commentary, or political drama, but as an active member of an interactive public sphere, albeit online, with a common political responsibility and duty as citizens.
8) Think beyond the dichotomy of right or wrong or zero-sum attitudes. Seek common ground and a common understanding where possible. See if there’s a third or fourth alternative solution to the problem.
9) In practice some posters simply ignore the more vulgar and polemical remarks posts and head straight to engage with other serious and civil posters, be it those with similar or differing view. But posters and readers will have to sift through a measure of unsavoury postings. From the writer’s observation, examples of serious posts from different political views on the issue of the role of the monarchy and the lèse majesté law do exist on sites like prachatai.com and they passionately engage in discussion, debate and argument about the topic in a manner not seen or permitted in the mainstream mass media. These exchanges exist on both the Thai-language and English-language versions of the prachatai.com website* and these people make prachatai.com a small but genuine public sphere for critical political exchange. One poster using the pen name ‘Joy’ wrote on November 14 on the English site of prachatai.com following a thread on the lèse majesté law: “Opinion in this thread vary, don’t u find that interesting? and the above posters tried to argue their case in a civilized way, rather than just attacking one another. That’s what is needed here in this country...”
* For examples of serious postings see postings by submarine, trep, Hobby, doctor J, submarine, Joy, John Francis Lee and more on prachatai.com’s english site. For Thai-language sites posters like Somsak Jeamteerasakul, Thongchai Winichakul, Pokpong Laowansiri and others.
The paper was written in December 2009 as partial fulfilment of Katherine Fanning Fellowship for Journalism and Democracy, Kettering Foundation, Dayton, Ohio.
The paper represents views of the author and not necessarily those of Kettering Foundation.
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