Thailand's protests and their digital dimension

For days now, more and more Thais have been taking to the streets. They are demonstrating against the government, demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a new constitution and a reform of the monarchy. Last Thursday, the government declared a state of emergency over Bangkok. Part of the state of emergency is the threat of two years in prison for posting protest selfies. This shows the importance the government attaches to social media.

In fact, the current protest movement began on the internet. A prominent example is the Facebook group "Royalist Marketplace," which was started in April 2020 by Thai political scientist Pavin Chachavalpongpun, who lives in Japan. It is a satirical channel in which Pavin and the users post fictitious sales ads with reference to the royal family. One user, for example, offered the teak bed in which King Ananda was shot in 1946 under circumstances that still remain unexplained.

Pavin created an idiosyncratic "style of political communication" in which "memes, TikTok and YouTube videos were combined with serious political debates," as political scientist Wolfram Schaffar writes in an extensive interview with Pavin for the newspaper Blickwechsel of the Asienhaus Foundation.

Pavin's deliberately pontifical appearances with colorful hair, long eyelashes and shrill outfits cause a stir, and they stand in diametric opposition to the martial-male culture of the Thai military. The style of entertainment, pop culture and serious political debate was well received: Within a few weeks, the Facebook group had more than 1 million members, making it one of the 20 largest Facebook groups worldwide.

Read more: Thailand PM refuses to step down as protests persist

Pop culture and protest

When the protests against the government and monarchy first took off in the summer, banners with the "Royalist Marketplace" logo were on display in several places — the movement had made the leap from social media to the street.

From the very beginning, the demonstrators used other pop-cultural elements. The three-finger salute from the Hollywood blockbuster "Tributes of Panem," which portrayed an uprising against a dictatorial regime, became particularly famous. The demonstrators also dressed up as Harry Potter or as the manga figure Hamtaro, an essentially harmless hamster who experiences everyday adventures. Last but not least, fans of K-Pop groups did fundraising for the protest on their channels.

There are also counter-movements, such as the Facebook group "Garbage Collectors," founded by the conservative royalist Rienthong Nanna. The declared goal of the group is to cleanse society of "social garbage," i.e. people who criticize supposed Thai values such as obedience to the elderly and devotion to the monarchy.

However, the "Royalist Marketplace" is much more successful than "Garbage Collectors," which has only 300,000 followers. In his interview with Blickwechsel, Pavin argued that royalists do not understand social media as well as he and other young people do. "In other words: The government is losing the game right now because they are not keeping up with the new technologies," he said.

Social media platforms themselves are now also part of the debate. Facebook bowed to an order from the Thai government on August 24, and blocked the "Royalist Marketplace" page. After international protests, Facebook announced that it would take legal action against the Thai government's order. In any case, Pavin soon founded a new Facebook group with similar names, which in just four weeks again has more than 1 million members.

In early October, Twitter closed nearly 1,000 accounts that the company attributed to the Royal Thai Army and held it responsible for propaganda and misinformation. "These accounts distributed content in support of the army and the government and targeted prominent political opponents," a Twitter blog said.

In May, the Thai government blocked the change.org website after it posted a petition for Thailand's King Rama X to be declared persona non grata in Germany. The king has spent a lot of time in southern Germany in the last few years, which annoys many Thais who believe the king is showing little solidarity with his people suffering in an economic downturn while he squanders millions in Germany.

Success uncertain

How much political debates on social media actually affect political conditions is controversial. In his book Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, internet pioneer and critic Jaron Lanier warned that social media ultimately make politics impossible. One reason is that they create an illusion: Namely, that success in social media is tantamount to a change in the real balance of power, which, according to Lanier, is not the case.

Moreover, according to Lanier, social media is polarizing by nature. They aggravate conflicts and prevent differentiation because one-sided and provocative contributions are more widespread. Users spend more time on social media, which is the goal of companies that only pursue economic interests. This is a problem in a country like Thailand, whose politics have not been stable for decades because of persistent division and polarization. There is the threat of a further hardening of the fronts. The imposition of a state of emergency, the continuation of protests and tougher repression by the security authorities against demonstrators with water cannon on Saturday prove that the clashes are becoming more violent and irreconcilable.

The "Arab Spring" is often used as a counter-argument, where many observers thought they saw a great wave of democratization carried by Facebook and Twitter. But in the end, authoritarian governments or war reigned again in almost all countries involved. "Revolutions or other far-reaching social changes require much more social and political preconditions than just participatory media structures," wrote communication scientist Martin Emmer, of Berlin's Free University, in an essay on "Social media in political communication." At the same time, however, Emmer points out that the interaction between social media and politics is so new that conclusive judgments are hardly possible.