How did Twitter people and Korean idol stans shake up Thai politics?

This past year, Twitter has been a standout channel of communication in political movements. There are as many as 7 million users in Thailand and it is widely known to be a space for young people and teenagers.

Those underlined are hastags made viral in relation to Thai political events especially the protests.

At the end of the year, Twitter Thailand revealed that the most tweeted hashtags were quite novel, because they were not only hashtags related to the entertainment industry, but also #covid and political movements hashtags. There were also a diverse range of social issues that made the rankings, such as #whatishappeninginthailand, #สมรสเท่าเทียม (same sex marriage) and #15ตุลาไปราชประสงค์ (15 Oct go to Ratchaprasong).

Hashtag culture and political movements

If we look at in detail the use of Twitter to push forward political issues, we will see that after the suppression of the 14 Oct 2020 protest in front of Government House, hashtags in the format of date-month-mob became widespread. For example, #ม็อบ14ตุลา (14Octmob), #ม็อบ17ตุลา (17Octmob), #ม็อบ18พฤศจิกา (18Novmob), etc. The hashtags were trending parallel with the protests that happened over many days in many locations. Before, many provinces also participated in organising anti-dictatorship protests by using hashtags to explain the uniqueness of their local area, such as #อยุธยาจะไม่ทนอีกต่อไป (Ayutthaya will no longer endure) and #ขอนแก่นบ่ย่านเด้อ (Khon Kaen is not scared) (see table).

Naming activities through hashtags

Rewinding back to 2020 after the Constitutional Court dissolved the Future Forward Party, Students from various universities held flash mobs to express their dissatisfaction with this political injustice, before disappearing in early March due to the spread of Covid-19. During the flash mob’s heyday, there were # named for each institution, as if they were competing each other to fight against dictatorship.

Trending in Thailand and the world 

This is not just a temporary phenomenon during the protests. If we look at all the trending hashtags for the year in Thailand, of the first 100 hashtags from getdaytrends.com (accessed on 6 Dec 2020), we will see that 29 hashtags are related to politics, especially the hashtag #เยาวชนปลดแอก (free youth) between 18-19 July 2020 with the number of retweets being as high as 12.4 million. This is Thailand’s second highest trend. As for the worldwide trends, from the top 15, there are 5 hashtags on Thai politics such as #ขีดเส้นตายไล่เผด็จการ (set a deadline to chase away dictatorship), making the top 3 in the worldwide trends.

How we got to today

Today, Twitter has become another world that people keep their eyes on and has become an object of study from various dimensions in order to understand the new generation’s awareness. We spoke to 2 people who have studied Twitter: Kanokrat Lertchoosakul, Lecturer at the Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University, who quickly started to study it while interviewing 350 members of the new generation that participated in the anti-Prayuth flash mobs, calling for constitutional amendment and monarchy reform. The second person is Pat (alias), an 11-year Twitter user who started in politics then eventually became a Korean idol fan in the end!? 

Kanokrat said the interviewees all identified Twitter as their main communication channel, especially middle school and high school students who started using Twitter before moving to other platforms, such as books, google searches, etc. while university students have several communication channels, including Twitter, Facebook and LINE. 

Kanokrat Lertchoosakul, Lecturer at the Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University

Lighting the big fuse: the dissolution of Future Forward-role of the monarchy

Kanokrat explained the points that brought the power in Twitter out into the street protests. There are 2 important points:

1. This power had been growing even before the 2019 election and started to move ever since the single gateway protest. Posts criticising the government were regularly seen, but people did not go out to protest on the street since their wants at that time ended up in the ballot box instead. Their voices were counted officially. But when the Future Forward Party was dissolved, people turned to protests.

2. For middle and high school students, a large number of memes in Twitter related to the monarchy greatly excited them.

“Both groups (secondary school and university) ‘riled up’ by Twitter hashtags for a long time, but the things they got riled up about never became mainstream. They came to feel enraged when they got riled up on Twitter so their hashtags trended but they woke up to see that the world knew nothing about it. No one knew what was happening to them and their friends. It’s one part of what made them come out; because their voices in the online world could no longer protect them,” Kanokrat said.

This is in line with Pat who thinks that the turning point which made Twitter people tweet more about politics had 2 factors: 1. The establishment of the Future Forward Party.

Before, there may have been some people criticising the junta, some people being sarcastic about Gen Prayut, but from before the election up to the Future Forward Party dissolution, the level of political talk slowly increased. This is because most people tweeting about politics are teenagers. They saw the Future Forward Party as their representatives who they chose to enter parliament. The moment when what they felt connected to was attacked became the point that made them feel that politics is close to home. 2. The Me Too trend had many people tweeting about sexual harassment. The Twitter space became a place to communicate about social issues, when originally it was only once in a while. 

Pat also said that at first on Twitter they argued, “should we get out onto the streets?” That was during the time Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, leader of the Future Forward Party, went to listen to charges with a flash mob at Pathumwan Police Station on 10 Jan 2020. “At that time, many people said not to go onto the streets, that we don’t have to make conditions for violence. From that day to today, things have taken a 180 degrees turn. Now everyone is on the streets. Any little thing and we call for people to go onto the streets very quickly for people on Twitter. This is a process that Twitter people have learned from facing political injustice themselves. This group of people did not grow up in time for the Red Shirts or the Thai Rak Thai era. They don’t really know of that injustice, but facing it themselves this time, they made a 180 degrees change,” Pat said.

Democratization, Decentralization, Participation and Empowerment 

How does Twitter impact the creation of awareness and political movements? Kanokrat explained it in 3 parts:

1. A Gateway to Information to communicate with people we do not know and access a large amount of data that does not belong only to our interest group . Kanokrat responded to the echo chamber theory (only communicating with or listening to groups that think the same way) which sees that retweeting in Twitter is mostly from a few sources – it forms clusters. Kanokrat thinks that if one was to compare it with LINE or Facebook, Twitter creates a lot less of an echo chamber. Another point is that it turned users into world citizens because they can view hashtag trends in both Thailand and globally, or even follow personal interests. Twitter is a gateway to information that is broader and more versatile than Facebook and LINE, resulting in this generation being naturally different from previous generations. Pat argued that Twitter is also an echo chamber, but with a different look from Facebook.

“We actually fight with minions on Facebook more often than we do on Twitter. On Twitter, sometimes it looks like it isn’t, but it’s actually an echo chamber. On Facebook, if we only look at the communities we follow, we’ll feel that everyone is talking about politics. If we want to do that on Twitter, it will result in the same thing. For example, if a Twitter user chooses to follow only people in their fandom, sometimes they may understand that this person is very politically active, but the truth is not like that. It also doesn’t reflect how politically active are the people outside,’ Pat said.

2. It is a tool to build political participation in every second. Kanokrat explained that Twitter is an agenda setting mechanism, making any demand a public issue. It is a mechanism to protect their friends who are threatened or have any problems. Additionally, it is also a mechanism for spreading understanding and a diverse range of interests, including those that cannot exist in mainstream media. This tool has interesting mechanisms like retweets and hashtag trends, allowing everyone to be a content creator. Once they can produce content, they can do campaigns.

“Like Anti One China. Suddenly it became known in a few days. The thread function allowed us to become content creators and campaign on issues of interest to us, or we can photoshop images or memes. When there are a lot of retweets, from a normal person we can become a celebrity. This means everyone has been empowered to feel that we can really have political participation, that our voices can really be counted,” Kanokrat said. 

3. Successfully mobilising mobs. Kanokrat thinks that the case of Thailand is similar to Hong Kong’s, as Twitter was able to create what is called a leaderless movement. Before, Facebook was used to inform Yellow Shirts and Red Shirts in a one-way communication and the only ones with authority to create content were the core members who were page admins, but now in the Twitter world there is something called a hashtag trend. This enables anyone to have ownership in daily mobs. 

“This phenomenon took on significance after the arrest of the protest leaders in mid-October. When they swept so many people away, people started to worry. But the thing about Twitter is that it lets anyone organise a mob. Anyone can raise funds. Anyone can create content or organise their own stages. Others can see at all time,” Kanokrat said.  

As for the issue of misleading news or false information on Twitter, Kanokrat thinks that other platforms like LINE and Facebook also have this, but most are not checked. Rather, it is a platform like Twitter which checks fake news all the time and in real time – checked by people with a range of different beliefs. An interesting example is when the royal motorcade passed protestors on 14 October. Within one day, many maps of the royal route were posted.

“Twitter is a platform which has many of the characteristics of democratisation, decentralisation and participation. It empowers everyone to feel that their actions and voices are counted. Everything they do immediately leaves an effect, so after the arrests in mid Oct 2020 the movement still moved forward because people had already been empowered,” Kanokrat concluded. 

From fandom to movement in the kingdom

Twitter Data of September 2020 (cited in workpointTODAY) indicate that Thailand is ranked as the most prominent country in tweeting about K-pop, with Korea ranked second and Indonesia third. For the influence of K-pop fans in terms of politics, Kanokrat said that if we observe carefully, we will notice that there are more female participants than male participants. This is in line with data on Twitter users which consist of more females than males and a large number are Korean groups fandoms, stans and the cosmetics trade according to Twitter trends, allowing them to also access more political information. This is the explanation they themselves give. Another issue are the social campaigns that appeared in the Korean fandoms even before the rise of political issues. They are very alert to being exploited by the political and economic structure, a result of their beloved idols being exploited by the entertainment companies they belong to and controlled by the authority of One China. These people make campaigns all the time. The important thing is they watch Korean drama series which contain a high level of political complexity, and that leads to them becoming a questioner and fighter. 

From politics to K-Pop and from K-Pop to politics

Pat has used Twitter for more than 11 years. That would be from around 2010. She mainly tweeted about politics before becoming a Korean groups fan. She told how the story developed. 10 years ago, the first Twitter community that were not IT people were those that used Twitter to report on political protests.

“We used Twitter for the first time in April 2009 when the Red Shirts gathered in Bangkok and continued to use it. In the past, the atmosphere was very different compared to today. Users were adults, but now it is mostly kids, from high school to university, or first jobbers at around 20 years of age, also using Twitter to talk about politics a lot. These people aren’t those that were originally interested in politics.”

Pat made an observation that most people who are aware and in political campaigns right now in Twitter are K-Pop fans and are women. The trends of fanclub members who turned to politics only changed in the past 1-2 years. Previously, fans of Korean groups were interested in social issues but had not yet really connected social issues to political issues much.

“Before, there may have been kids tweeting complaints about school rules, parents, everything else, but no one had connected to show that what they’re complaining about is politics in everyday life. It is authoritarian culture. The turning point that made people start to tweet more about politics is the birth and end of the Future Forward Party and the Me Too movement.”

From injustice towards performers to injustice in politics

Pat continued by saying that in Korean entertainment circles, sometimes there was news that made Twitter people angry. For example, female idols were attacked for being feminist. When someone translated the news into Thai, there was heavy criticism and there were people ready to dig up various pieces of information and publish them, easily creating co-learning in Korea fanclub communities.

“The issues of injustice in small-large entertainment companies, companies that exploit performers, fans were already talking about it, but before, no one had connected it to politics. They didn’t look at it as authoritarianism. Recently, someone lit the spark that it is actually politics. Fans have amassed an understanding of various injustices already, so when they got politics as the last piece of the jigsaw that allowed them to see more clearly, they turned to express themselves in politics like this,” Pat said.

The opening: ‘aek-hep’

Pat talked about a group with great influence in the Twitter world, that is ‘aek-hep.’ Aek is account. Hep is a dog tick. This is a type of account that is opened anonymously to follow Korean performers. 

“They are different from fanclubs in that aek-hep insult everyone. They use bad language when criticising idols and performers. They are rude. At first when hardly anyone talked about politics, the first to start talking often about politics were these aek-hep groups. These groups insulted the government, talked about the monarchy, talked of serious issues. But now in politics, people who aren’t aek-hep also insult people as strongly as the aek-hep (laughs). The aek-hep debuted around 1-2 years ago, but everything developed very quickly.” 

‘Fanbase’ news distribution chamber

Pat explained other mechanisms in fandom. Normally in any one fandom (kingdom of fans of the same performer), there will be fanclub members or people who follow news about the performer up close and support them, the fansite which is people who take photos of performers to upload them onto social media as a communication channel and to promote them, and the fanbase which is people who act as a news distribution centre, translating news and tweeting all information related to the performer or band.

Pat gave an example of a starting point and finding a solution by people in the community.

“This year (2020), the fanbases started to have a role in tweeting about politics and social issues. Many fandoms came out and tweeted, like the fandom I’m in, which is Army or the BTS fanclub. The fanbase house which is the largest has over 300,000 followers in Thailand. In the middle of the year, they tweeted about Black Lives Matter and also tweeted information about the CPTPP. The starting point in tweeting about politics was Save Wanchalearm. They asked permission from followers to tweet about it once, because it was enforced disappearance, something against human rights and legal principles. This tweet sparked a discussion in the fandom – if it was something that a fanbase should speak about or not, because normally a fanbase doesn’t tweet about anything else at all, like an official organisation account. There were people who criticised them for tweeting about it. They didn’t want to know about politics in this tweet. Can’t they have a no-stress area? In the end, the admin ran a poll asking if they should tweet about the political issues they think are important to everyone or not. Most people voted to tweet.” After that, many other fanbases started to tweet about politics. 

IOs disguising themselves in fandoms

Pat talked about the attempt of the IO (Information Operations). Previously, there were IOs who tried to disguise themselves as Korean fans to rile up people through tweets.

“But it was so obvious. Their bio said they liked BTA, probably a typo for BTS, and their profile picture was of Way V, which is another band which also had 7 members like BTS. I guess they were briefed to get a picture of a 7-person band but didn’t know which band was BTS. The picture was also of very low quality. They tried to get people riled up about this and that. People responded, saying you don’t have to, we can tell. The community can really tell if it is an outsider trying to disguise themselves. Their speech is not the same, like how we call CDs ‘bums’ (albums). Outsiders wouldn’t call them bums (laughs).”

“Any one fandom is a subculture in K-pop which is not like other fanclubs. They have their own uniqueness. It’s not just an IO disguising them as fans and fanclubs can tell, but if an A Fandom member disguises themself as a B Fandom member, we can also tell (laughs).”

Reactions from the state, IO and the response of the pro-government-monarchy group

When Twitter is clearly a space to communicate-the mobilization of resources for a political fight, it is not only the pro-democracy side or anti-government side that uses it skilfully, the pro-govrnment or pro-state side also uses this tool. An interesting phenomenon is the IO (Information Operations), that were caught by the Move Forward Party and Progressive Movement that came out and disclosed its operational structure along with official documents that were leaked, including a large number of duplicate tweets.

In late October 2020, a group of Twitter users tweeted images with the same caption and the same hashtags. Some of their messages were changed slightly. All the tweets were about the monarchy. For example, a tweet with an image of King Rama IX was tweeted repeatedly, “Ever seen I was born 40 years ago, I saw His Majesty working all the time, exhausted from working for the people, but why is it that the children are insulting His Majesty this much? Is this what they call the new generation? #28ตุลาปกป้องสถาบัน (28 Oct protect the monarchy).”

Examples of tweets repeating the same mistake at the '44 years' part.

On 24 Oct 2020, an image and caption was repeatedly tweeted: “Before we were only #quietpower but now it’s time to come out and protect the monarchy for our father. May his Majesty be our idol, be behind our victory #ในหวงสู้สู้ (fight, fight, His Majesty)”. An observation is that these tweets have the same typos. At the same time, a Facebook user published a screengrab of a LINE group conversation that seems to be an order for a tweet-hashtag operation to protect the monarchy on Twitter to an agency which is also believed to be a state agency. 

Twitter and IO management

The obviousness of state officials or the army mobilising personnel to use Twitter in the political fight became even more obvious; in early October 2020, Twitter disclosed a report, having found users that are part of information operations from the state sectors of many countries, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Russa and Thailand. Additionally, they suspended 1,594 of these user accounts, claiming that they violated Twitter policies on “platform manipulation”. 

Details from investigations and analyses by the Stanford Internet Observatory (SIO) were also revealed. In suspending these accounts, 926 of them were IOs of the Thai army. This is considered the highest number of fake accounts to be suspended this time. However, in a transparency report by Twitter, it was shown that there was a larger suspension of 23,750 Chinese IOs in June 2020, which were pro- government and had created deception related to politics between China and Hong Kong. 

Later, in late November 2020, Reuters (cited in posttoday), reported that Twitter suspended the account @jitarsa_school which is related to a pro-monarchy group. This @jitarsa_school account is related to a royally-sponsored school for volunteering established in September. It had around 48,000 followers before being suspended by a Twitter official, stating that it violated Twitter rules on spam and platform manipulation. 

Twitter users, including political groups, have regularly come out to expose these things. For example, Blognone website’s report on 28 Dec 2020 stated that the Twitter user @SaraAyanaputra disclosed a proposal document of the army showing the army’s IO working process which is coordinated through two apps which are Twitter Broadcast and Free Messenger. The army admitted that the slide presentation was real, saying that it was the army learning “to understanding online social media efficiently and appropriately” and the use of the two applications from S-Planet Co., Ltd. incurred no expenses.

The text of the slides talks about the coordination process in tweeting the same things by the army’s workforce of 17,000 people. It indicates the duty times, the division of responsibility of grey/black groups in tweet-attacks on the opposition, and the procedure to avoid being banned by Twitter. Later the army spokesperson did not speak of the grey/black teams in the slides but only said that it was the preparation of a PR department to distribute positive news, such as activities revering the monarchy, creating an image/reputation, army missions and assistance to civilians. The application is also open for anyone to download, meaning that the army did not have any intention to conceal this. At the same time, if an ill-intentioned person posted distorted or fake information (grey or black coloured information), they would investigate and hurry to promptly publish the truth in online social media.

Evaluation of IO, the slick version

Pat analysed that those that are clearly pro-mob or pro-state will not change back and forth. Having or not having an IO does not make them change their minds, while those standing in the middle do not pay much attention to these things. 

“An IO is actually an echo chamber of the other side. It will make people on that side feel like they have a lot of comrades, make them feel secure, like they have friends. Someone asked if the IO become more careful, using more artifice, would they be scarier? No matter what the IO look like, we have to fight them anyway. If they use fake news to attack us, whether it’s obvious or very convincing, we still have to fight them. We still also have to work on the thoughts of these people standing in the middle ground, so I don’t feel really worried about how if IO come from some agency, they will get scarier.”

“When in war, we fight. When in peace, we fight each other. In the fandoms it’s also like this. It’s very normal. It’s a culture that the IO doesn’t know much about. They don’t have to instigate to waste our time. We’re used to fighting each other, correcting each other, or examining each other all the time. We’re used to hating each other’s faces. If you’re asking if IO joined in or not, they did come. But when they came, we all knew they were IO. Then everyone is like, you go play somewhere else. We’re fighting here,” a Korean idol fan that has used Twitter for more than 11 years concluded. 

Source: 
https://prachatai.com/journal/2021/01/91178

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