Technology’s dubious role in Thailand’s protests-FP

April 25, 2009

Technology’s dubious role in Thailand’s protests
Foreign Policy: April 17, 2009

While most of technology pundits were debating the role of Twitter in stirring Moldova’s protests, we may have missed how it was used (and misused!) in Thailand, where much larger protests were taking place. I’ve spent a lot of time researching the issue, trying to find any references to technologies that have been used to organize and cover protests, but I have found only a handful of blog posts, most of them discussing viral videos. Make sure to check Ethan Zuckerman’s post about the infamous video in which Thaksin supposedly acknowledges that he’s been paying his supporters; the video triggered a lot of heated discussions on YouTube and in the blogosphere, as discussed on GlobalVoices.

I did manage to find, however, several posts on how Twitter was used by opponents of the protesters. Below is, perhaps, the most interesting post I found – on how the “yellow shirts” were “out-twittering” the “red shirts” and how many inside traditional media – who wanted to get these commentators on air – were unaware of the strong political bias of what they took to be “citizen journalists” without a political agenda of their own:

While the “redshirts” were protesting on the streets, the “yellowshirts” dominated the Twitter accounts – and so influenced media organisations everywhere with their pointed view of the conflict. At least one British TV newsroom spent considerable hours trying to organise live reports from these political activitists without knowing their political agenda. One Tweeter @andrewspooner made a point of revealing the yellowshirts at regular intervals.

The accused “yellowshirts” did not hide, but staunchly defended their political affiliation – and so the live news coverage became a tit-for-tat Twitter slanging match in virtual reality while real people died on the streets of Bangkok. Also revealed – some of the live reports translating Thai TV bulletins emanated from Bali and another Tweeter, @BangkokBill, claimed on his blog to be ex-U.S. Army in the 4th PSYOP group! He says he is now a manager at an English school in Thailand and has spent 3 years in the country. He was in the thick of the action, uploading hundreds of pictures to flickr.

That Twitter could be used for disinformation is not surprising. Just like any open network that anyone could join, it’s open for manipulation by anyone with an agenda. I don’t believe that social media inherently benefits the “good guys” over the “bad guys” – in most cases, the good guys just also happen to be rather progressive and forward-looking on a whole set of issues, technology included, so they are naturally more skillful at using the Internet. This is not a universally shared sentiment; Ethan Zuckerman, for example, recently confessed to a different take:

It’s my strong sense that internet technology isn’t neutral. It isn’t equally useful for participatory and repressive movements – it’s inherently participatory and open, and inevitably easier to deploy for conversations than for a theoretical fascist movement leader.

While I disagree with Ethan here, I think the jury is still out. Cases like Thailand – where it’s so hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys – seem to prove (at least to me) that technology doesn’t have an inherent liberal (or anti-repressive for that matter) bias. It shows that social media could be used successfully to neutralize the growing social unrest- or, at least, disinform those who are watching and reporting on it remotely. As a sidenote: the reason why we don’t see many reports about this in the media is that such cases are too ambiguous and hard to handle: Moldova made all the headlines because it had  young people fighting a communist governmen – this is a good story, with or without Twitter; but Thailand, on the other hand, has a much more complex narrative, where it’s impossible to present the developments in “technology helps the repressed guys win over the dictators” – and hence, very few pay attention. Thus, we usually end up only with dramatic cases to analyse.

But all in all, as long as “Twitter revolution” is possible, so is the “Twitter counter-revolution” . Thus, we shouldn’t be surprised by reports that there was some disinformation and even provokations (potentially coming from the Moldovan government, even though it cannot be stated conclusively) travelling around Twitter last week; this was to be expected (to me, it actually proves that the government treats Twitter and other social media as a threat – which probably should only raise the profile of these tools among activists).  I am yet to see any evidence that would link the disinformation campaign on Twitter to the government, but there is no reason why pro-government loyalists wouldn’t use the same tools and tricks.

Coming back to Thailand, the redshirts did use one centralized technology that may have been crucial in helping them gain popular support: teleconferencing. There’s an interesting article in the Asia Times today that examines the role that Internet broadcasts of Thailand’s former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra played in the events:

The ability of Thaksin’s backers in Thailand to screen his speeches and public addresses live, via advanced net-enabled technology, has given him a platform to urge the Thai people to overthrow what he has labeled an illegitimate government. By harnessing mass communication that can traverse continents, Thaksin has more than lived up to his pedigree as a telecommunications magnate.

The current uprising against the military-supported government by the “red shirts” may not have materialized without the provocation of Thaksin’s tired but angry face rallying spirits from video screens erected on the streets of Bangkok and broadcast on satellite-based television stations.

Instead of the man in flesh and blood, his supporters took inspiration seeing him via satellite imagery. When Thaksin thundered on the giant viewing panels that “negotiations are impossible”, the assembled red shirts howled back in agreement and took to the streets after his call for a “people’s revolution” against the Abhisit Vejjajiva-led government.

For followers of Thaksin, the sight of their leader appearing before their eyes in crystal clear picture and sound quality is a powerful image, perhaps more so than if he were physically present at the gatherings.

The electronic medium served as a stirring reminder to the red shirts, who feel their leader had been persecuted and should be brought back to head the country. The video-linking not only substituted for lost political opportunities due to Thaksin’s self-imposed exile – he was sentenced in October 2008 to two years in prison on conflict of interest charges – but also gave him the halo of a martyr.

Check the original article for names and cases of other regional leaders, who relied on teleconfeferencing to keep in touch with their followers!

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