Today is the World Press Freedom Day and it got this writer thinking about the changing media landscape in Thailand.
These days, it is harder to locate a newspaper kiosk in Bangkok than a nearest convenience store to buy booze. Young people increasingly do not read a physical newspaper. And when they go read it online, they tend to only go straight to what they are interested in.
The change is not just about the decline of physical print media or people watching less and less primetime news on television, but the rise of social media on everyone’s ubiquitous smartphone.
The duty of the press as a gatekeeper of what is fit to print or watch, is being undermined or made almost irrelevant over the past few years as citizens – social media users and consumers – became increasingly powerful in driving news agenda. Social media is nothing less than a game changer to the traditional mass media landscape.
Take the trending hashtags on Twitter for example. These days, Twitter hashtags and viral Facebook posts drive a lot of Thai society’s conversations and news agenda. The mainstream media monitors them, and reporters write stories based on what is trending which further amplify these topics.
Also, mass media’s censorship and self-censorship on sensitive issues, particularly on the monarchy institution, have been rendered ineffective. Many Thai social media users share and spread critical news, information, gossip, and hearsay about the monarchy. This is the other side of the Thai media landscape today.
Some became citizen journalists and offer social media users uncensored and uninterrupted Facebook Live coverage of sensitive protests such as that of the monarchy-reform movement.
State censorship is rendered largely ineffective, all they can do is to invoke the Computer Crime Act with a maximum five-year imprisonment term. But for every arrest and prosecution, thousands more still share critical news and information about the monarchy every day.
On the other hand, with the mainstream mass media no longer being able maintain its monopoly on news agenda and public conversation, what we see is not only the fragmentation of news and topics, but the tendency for many social media users to tailor and dwell inside its own parochial social media bubble.
Blocking, un-friending, and subscribing only to people and media organizations that reflect one’s political inclination is so prevalent these days and users end up dwelling in their own self-created bubble of news and information comfort zone. In the real world and a functioning democracy, we need to engage and deliberate with people who vehemently disagree or think differently from us in hope of compromise and finding a common solution for society.
When there is a political debate or argument online, people tend to be far less civil compared to face-to-face interactions. This is creating a more toxic political environment. Political tolerance is a dying value on social media and people could turn outright nasty, uninhibited, and rude when engaging in a political debate online with others.
Social media users may have found a new freedom, some have become media influencers with tens of thousands of followers if not more. Nevertheless, we should not forget that not all Thais are active on social media and not all agendas worthy of trending or being discussed on Twitter and Facebook can be found on social media.
The unhealthy attraction of excessive celebrity news consumption spread by the traditional media have become even more acute and addictive in the social media era, for example.
All social media users should recognize this and get out of their bubble every now and then, be Facebook ‘friends’ and follow those who disagree with them politically, or Thailand risks facing a new social and political isolation. The social and political divisions between regular social media users and those who seldom use social media is also real.
There is more to life than the parochial existence inside one’s social media sphere.