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Twitter in Thailand

April 19, 2009



I’ve been following the twitter feed on #redshirt for a week now (since April 11, the day the red shirt demonstrators invaded the Pattaya resort hosting the ASEAN meeting). (See an earlier post on the civil unrest there.) It’s been truly fascinating in many ways.

(It’s a big disadvantage, of course, not to be able to read Thai; so there is a segment of the feed that I can’t address at all.)

Here are a few things I’ve gathered in the week of reading. I’ve become familiar with a couple of voices — bangkokbill, andrewspooner, anitchang, smartbrain, piriya … I’ve learned a bit about the timing of events in Bangkok during the Sunday and Monday showdown with the government. I’ve probably gotten a bit of the flavor of the issues and emotions that divide the contending protest movements, red and yellow. I got some useful links to valid news and academic sources on the conflict.

And I’ve viewed the controversy about who is REALLY dominating the twitter feed — yellow shirts or red shirts. Andrew Spooner is out front in asserting that yellow shirts are spinning the facts in the twitter feed; others characterize him as “pro-red shirt” and biased in that direction. It’s gotten a bit personal — maybe it’s a good thing Spooner is off on a travel article assignment. But actually — I’m not seeing the evidence of bias that Spooner sees.

Another interesting aspect of the feed — there are only a few eye witness real time comments from the streets — certainly few compared to the ongoing commentary by the regulars. And there appear to be no real time reports from participants — red shirts or conceivably cops and soldiers.

The biggest issues of debate that people are clashing about on twitter are important ones. Did the government use more force than necessary? Were there more deaths than the four that were reported? Were more bodies secretly taken away? (This is a persistent theme in Spooner’s postings.)

And second, how does the “street” feel about the demonstrations? Is there more support for the yellow shirts and the current government, or is there mass support for the red shirts and Thaksin? Are the red shirt demonstrators mostly concerned about democracy and social progress, or are they dupes of Thaksin’s party?

Spooner makes what sounds like a valid point about access — it makes sense that poor people who might support Thaksin are less likely to have access to twitter and the Internet. But since you can tweet straight from a cell phone, this doesn’t seem to be much of a barrier. There are a lot of cell phones in Bangkok!

What never really gets addressed directly is the extent of mob violence exerted by red shirts on several occasions last weekend: the invasion of Battaya, invasion of the ministry of interior, smashing of the vice minister’s car and serious beating of the official himself, and the burning of numerous buses. All of this is well documented in the press and on YouTube — but almost never mentioned in the twitter polemics.

And of course there’s the mysterious assassination attempt on the life of a former official, Sondhi, who was a prominent figure in the yellow shirt demonstrations in the fall — some mention of this shooting on the twitter feed but no real news.

What is truly fascinating about the demonstrations in Bangkok this past week, and the twitter feeds that emanated as a result, is what it suggests about the future. Imagine that 10% of demonstrators contribute comments and feelings every few hours; imagine the freelance commentators and partisans are putting in their interpretations; and imagine the parties and the government make an effort to chime in and provide spin, interpretation, and misinformation. This would be a torrent of as many as four thousand tweets an hour for an extended time — perhaps 350,000 tweets to make sense of in a week. What a data-rich cacaphony for the journalist, the sociologist, and the intelligence analyst to try to make sense of. Thailand 2009 isn’t the twitter revolution — but maybe the next one will be.

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