If Thailand’s junta is truly sincere in its twisted claim that it is working hard toward democratizing Thailand, its ban on campaigning online should be lifted immediately.
Every day it remains in place deprives citizens of their right and opportunity to learn about each political party and their policies to take part in a democratic decision-making process that includes interactive online debate and deliberation.
Political communication through social media is very economical and can instantaneously reach a large swath of Thai voters.
Social media bypasses the traditional gatekeeping role of the mainstream mass media and well as state-controlled media.
According to the Electronic Transactions Development Agency’s internet user profile 2017, as much as 82 percent of the Thai population – 57 million of 69.1 million – is connected to the internet.
Seventy-four percent, or 51 million, of the public are active social media users. As a matter of fact, the number of mobile phone subscriptions is even higher than that of the Thai population, at 93.6 million, which means a substantial number of Thais use more than one.
Line and Facebook are the two most popular social media platforms. Twitter trails in eighth place.
What’s more, Thais 16 to 64 spend an average of nine hours and 38 minutes online every day, the longest in the world, according to the agency.
Spending three hours and 10 minutes on average using social media each day, the same age group ranks No. 4 globally after the Philippines (three hours, 57 minutes), Brazil (three hours, 39 minutes) and Indonesia (three hours, 23 minutes).
These figures make it clear that social media has become the new public sphere, a new marketplace of communication and learning about many things including politics, democracy and human rights. The junta, despite its supposed absolute power and laws such as the Computer Crime Act, can do little to stop social media users learning from one another and criticizing its job running the country.
This explains why the junta has always been paranoid about social media and put an artificial lid on political campaigning in that space, despite its own deployment of state- and private-controlled media through traditional and new channels such as social media to promote itself in the run-up to elections promised for February.
After junta leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha this past week finally sort-of declared his interest being a civilian candidate for prime minister, after some mainstream mass media outlets surveyed the public online on whether voters would choose Prayuth as PM. Contrary to traditional pollsters, three media outlets, The Nation, Khaosod and TV Channel One, found Prayuth failed to obtain even 13 percent support on all three surveys.
More than 350,000 voted in the TV Channel One poll; 88 percent of them said they wouldn’t support Prayuth.
These results, though unscientific, are contrary to traditional pollsters (of dubious professional bases) who say Prayuth consistently comes out on top compared to other candidates.
While the accuracy of these media-sponsored surveys on social media can be debated, the results cast doubt on the level of support for Prayuth and suggest that social media users may not be as tame or impressed with the junta as some may have expected when watching state-controlled programs lauding the military regime and its leaders.
Social media users appear to be more independent-minded and the feedback to the junta too brutal for the liking of the military regime. The situation seems unpredictable, and it explains why the junta is very apprehensive about allowing political campaigning to take place on social media anytime soon.