Understanding the media and finding a safe solution in the age of witch-hunts

Originally published in Thai on Prachatai
Article by Yiamyut Sutthichaya
Translated by Prachatai English team

The phenomenon of political division is now becoming clearer as Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, leader and secretary-general of the Future Forward Party (FFP), are again accused on social media of undermining the monarchy after the election, followed by legal action – a clear reflection that the media and social media are becoming the new Tank Corps radio. Prachatai speaks to a media expert to understand this phenomenon and find a solution.During the past week, Piyabutr Saengkanokkul has been put under the political and social spotlight. Formerly a lecturer at the Faculty of Law, Thammasat University, Piyabutr is now the FFP secretary-general. The party has just surprised everyone by coming third in the election, resulting in attacks on the party leaders, especially Piyabutr. Both the mass media and social media are labelling him as an enemy of the monarchy, backing their accusations with out-of-context and distorted versions of old interviews and writings.

And if that’s not enough, there are also movements springing up online. Mallika Boonmeetrakool has announced the revival of the Cyber Warrior Club, Suthep Thaugsuban is also calling for people to protest on social media, and there are reports of creating the army’s own cyber warfare unit. Recently, a Change.org campaign to impeach the Election Commission of Thailand (ECT) has become so popular that seven people have been arrested for sharing the campaign. There is no doubt then that Thailand’s political battlefield has now moved into a realm that cannot be seen with the naked eye (if one has no internet access).

Trashing someone’s image is not a new phenomenon on social media. However, in the context of social media, slandering becomes more powerful as the number of users and shares rise. This is a new decline in Thai politics, whose development is slower than that of social media technology.

What follows is the polarization of ideas and political ideology among Thai people, which is more clearly divisive than ever before. This is worrisome, as the two worlds could expand into parallel political universes on the internet, and the worst outcome would be civil war, bloodbaths  in which Thais kill Thais, as on 6 October 1976, which many are worried about and are trying to stop. Communication through the media can definitely contribute to both possibilities.

Prachatai invites you to look at an explanation of what is happening in Thai society, what Thai media should do in an age when the prerogative of setting the agenda for what the public learns about is slipping through our fingers, how other countries deal with incitement, and what kind of communication could stop violence.

A new kind of mob when social media affects people’s decisions

Piyabutr and Thanathorn, the FFP leader, have been stuck with the image of bearing ill will towards the monarchy since they entered the political sphere in 2018. Thanathorn’s words have been quoted out of context to make them seem like an attack on the sufficiency economy. Piyabutr’s history as the recipient of a scholarship from France and a member of the Nitirat group, which aims to amend or abolish the lèse majesté law, has also been exploited. Videos of Piyabutr’s speeches and press conferences have been doctored to brand him as an enemy of the monarchy.

These phenomena are similar to what has been happening in Indonesia, where content about violations of Islamic beliefs is doctored for political gain. This is easy to do in a context where there is a blasphemy law in place, whereas Thailand uses the issues of the monarchy and incitement to oppose democracy, as seen in the charges filed against Thanathorn by the NCPO’s legal arm.

The core of nation-building or something many of the people feel sensitive about is being used as a powerful tool to destroy dissenters. As Gen Apirat Kongsompong, the Army Commander-in-Chief, told reporters: social media is more powerful than the weapons the army has. Nevertheless, social media also produces people like Haruthai “Au” Muangboonsri, who reported to the police that Piyabutr is a threat to security after viewing a video clip of Piyabutr that had been edited.

Asst Prof Penchan Phoborisut, a lecturer at the College of Communications, California State University, Fullerton, and former MCOT reporter, who studies new media, explains the ‘Thanathorn-Piyabutr Effect’ by saying that the attacks seem to be an assault on the FFP. New Facebook pages and media have been created to attack the party directly, and several agencies have accused them of serious charges. Memes about anti-monarchism have been created. This is probably because the popularity of the FFP that came out in the election has gone too far.

“What will happen in Thailand is that one has to be careful about the lies that are being continuously spewed out, making people angry with Thanathorn and Piyabutr and believing in the lies made up by certain groups. There will be groups who are really angry and think that these two are really bad. The followers of Piyabutr and Thanathorn, the young, also feel angry that they voted for the first time and it came out wrong like this. Anger can take politics out onto the streets. It’s a sensitive time too. People in power should do the right thing to keep society from falling apart. Truth and justice are hard to find, and people who should act according to principles are not doing that,” Penchan said.

Penchan started by explaining what is known as an ‘algorithm’ – the mechanism which allocates content that users like or that they are familiar with, a result of Facebook’s own research. She explained that the rise of social media has a major effect on consumer behaviour and is a political influence on consumers.

“The media already has an influence on people’s decisions – things like people’s perception of the news, or media like social media. When Trump (the current U.S. President) used Twitter every day in 2016, people felt that politicians were more accessible, like they were receiving messages directly from a politician. Another thing that happened in terms of political phenomena is the use of bots on social media for disseminating information, making fake accounts, misrepresenting information. The spread of information is usually done by constant retweeting.”

“You need to understand Facebook’s structure first. Facebook lets us share content while Facebook itself must also seek profits from selling advertising. In 2014, Facebook did an experiment on millions of users, organizing their feeds without users knowing. They took information and messages which made people feel good and not good for people to see and measured how they felt. It was found that if it was a bad thing, users would get frustrated and stop looking at Facebook, so they found that there was an effect on people’s emotions.”

According to Penchan, social media affects people’s attention span. People are unable to read anything long, and making points of interest on their feed page while they scroll through is making memes with little content into points of interest.

In terms of users’ behaviour, Penchan mentioned a 2012 research paper on online protest organization by W. Lance Bennett and Alexandra Sagerberg called “The Logic of Connective Action.” The paper noted that social media plays a role in managing dissatisfaction and in the formation of new kinds of protests, creating a space in which people express actions taking in the real world, like the Occupy Wall Street movement, with the slogan that they are the majority of the country, which connects them to other citizens in a way that is beyond race or ethnicity. People go out and demonstrate as a group or by themselves, take selfies and post them on social media with a hashtag. Such action then influences other people, who see that their friend or professor has also been there.

“A characteristic of social media is that it connects people in a network community. It seems like what we show on social media has an influence on the person sitting next to us. We don’t have to deal with each other in person. It’s like we’re in a network, in a loose kind of friendship. The landscape of a network like this gives us and other people an influence on each other, more or less, like the nice things we ate today, and big things like politics,” Penchan said.

Understanding and coming to terms with Thai media in search of peaceful communication

These days, social media has grabbed the space for perception and setting the social agenda away from the mass media. But the media cannot escape the responsibility of making content accessible online. Nation TV’s broadcasting of a doctored voice clip, allegedly of Thanathorn and Thaksin Shinawatra, is a clear example of how the media can add fuel to the conflict by reporting news that is not true.

Even though it may seem like drawing a line in the sand, when it comes to the role of the media, Penchan calls for the media to claim its duty of seeking the truth, which is difficult and risky to do in this country.

“The media has never not taken sides. I worked in a television station before. Mainstream media really has to ask itself what its job is. To seek the truth or just to be employed, so tomorrow you will have the money to pay off your condo or send your children to school? I understand that there are many factors. Since I have been working in the media from the 2003 political crisis on, there have no no media which doesn’t take sides. The media has always taken sides. It starts from you and how much you censor yourself, or your boss telling you that you can’t run a certain story, or the department head putting up a sign in the editing room that from now on we can’t show pictures of this person receiving flowers, or we can’t present pictures of a certain former prime minister in a good light.”

“A politician said to me once, ‘You work for this channel. We’re at the Ministry of Finance. We’re supporting you. Why don’t you help the government?’. This is from the Minister of Finance at one time, wanting us to help the government to cover up the truth about something. It’s difficult, and our mainstream media is not as strong as what we see in the US, where they can investigate every aspect of state power and individuals connected to the President. There are a lot of restrictions. If I say anything more, it’s like I’m just a representative of the mainstream media.”

“The problem is you have to ask what kind of society you want. There’s this kid who went to work for Tnews. He said that he has to follow orders. He works as a rewriter. In the end what kind of society do you want? Do you want a society that keeps slandering people, that does not give justice to anyone? And do you believe that if you keep speaking the truth, someday you can escape this?  Or do you think that you won’t fall victim to this, that injustice won’t affect you, your parents, or your loved ones? Do you want to live in a society in which people have the power to do anything without being investigated?”

“We have to question what we do. Even when we post anything, we have to think of it as communication with someone. Are you going to speak the truth or lie? Are you discrediting anyone? Are you saying something that will make people go after Piyabutr or assault him like before when someone attacked Acharn Worachet in the parking lot in Thammasat University? Do you want the society to get to that point? What if someday things turn around and someone comes after us too? Is that the society that we want?”

“Someone commented recently that Piyabutr shouldn’t have a country to live in, that he shouldn’t be a member of the FFP. Is something like that OK? When there’s someone who thinks differently from you, you want to drive them out of the country because you say that what they think is not suitable for the country. Is this the kind of society you want to live in? Because you think that this can never happen to you? And will driving someone away solve the problem? You have already driven people out. Two of those are former prime ministers, and how did the election turn out? You already drove them out, but their ideas remain. Or you could kill them, but their ideas would still remain. You can get rid of Piyabutr, there will still be someone who thinks like him, and maybe that person will stand on the frontline like him. How many people like that are you going to get rid of? How long will the witch-hunt go on?”

How can the public keep the media in check?

ASEAN and East Asian countries, especially countries where democratic development is more secure (at least there are regular elections and no military coups), all face issues of false information on the internet, but the public also plays a role in fact checking. For example, Verafile in the Philippines is a civil society group which checks whether the information in the official news and press releases is correct, or Cofact in Taiwan, which is a network of people who collaborate on fact checking through Line and pass the information through chat bots. But we have yet to clearly see the formation of such groups in Thailand. There are only a few individuals who perform the role from time to time.

Penchan, as a former journalist, said that the public must also keep the media in check. The internet has made this a lot easier. As regards reducing the polarization in receiving information, she suggested that we must get information from both sides, and to modify our news feed by clicking on both sides’ news so that they show up on our feed. But she accepted that this is difficult, as we all have our own biases.

“You have to receive information that is balanced . You have to receive information from people you don’t like too. This is a solution that is in how we receive news, but it is hard to do that because each person has their own bias. We have to try to be someone who respects other people’s rights. Someone may say something that we don’t agree with, but they should have a platform to express their opinion, but this is difficult in Thai society. When people see something they don’t like, they will hide comments or unfriend someone, or curse them. This does not benefit anyone, and it does not benefit themselves because that they don’t understand what the other side thinks.”

On the issue of respecting rights to speak, Penchan used the US as an example. In the US, the Bill of Rights guarantees freedom of expression, but with the restriction that expression must not destroy anyone’s name. If that happens, then it opens the door to lawsuits.

“In America, there is a law called freedom of speech, which protects the people’s right to expression. The university once invited a very conservative speaker, and then they had to hire police officers for security, and pay a lot of money. People criticized them, asking why they had to invite this person, why did you have to pay for these people to speak? People argue, but in terms of the law, they have the right to say things that are very conservative, within the restriction that they do not slander anyone, or accuse anyone without evidence. There are laws around freedom of speech. It’s not that you can’t say anything until it violates the law. Your right is guaranteed, but it’s not like you can keep lying, or you’ll be sued,” said the Thai professor in a Californian university.

Is national security as it is cited, based on truth or lies? We could begin here in the smallest way, by the people helping each other through asking questions and interacting.

[1] The Tank Corps radio was an army-affiliated radio station in the 70's which broadcasted messages attacking the student movement at the time and inducing the public into turning against the students, contributing to the 6 October massacre at Thammasat University.

[2] Worachet Pakeerut, lecturer at the Faculty of Law, Thammasat University, and member of the Nitirat group. In February 2012, Worachet was attacked in the parking lot at Thammasat University's Tha Prachan campus, most likely for the Nitirat's group's campaign to amend Article 112.