Social Network Polarises Society Further, Academic Warns

(18 December) Social network can lead to further "fragmentation" of the Thai society which is already deeply polarised along political fault lines, a prominent expert on mass communications has warned.

Social network risks turning into an "echo chamber", where each individual builds a selective audience with similar political ideas and only suffers to hear about information according to their conviction, said Ms. Pirongrong Ramasoota Rananand, head of the department of Journalism and Information from Chulalongkorn University.
She cited the example of ?unfriend phenomenon?, in which many Thai Facebookers unfriend – and get unfriended by – their friends or colleagues in the peak of political crisis because of their different political opinions.
"Personally, I get unfriended by maybe 40 people," Ms. Pirongrong joked, "And I must have unfriended the same amount of people".
Ms. Pirongrong was speaking alongside fellow panelists at a public forum entitled ?Thai media in times of political crisis?, which was organised last night at the Foreign Correspondent Club of Thailand (FCCT) by media rights advocate group Media Inside Out. 
Other panelists were Mr. Pravit Rojanaphruk, a senior journalist for The Nation; Ms. Gayathry Venkiteswaran, executive director of Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA); Mr. Pipob Udommittipong, a committee member of Media Inside Out; and Mr. Sumeth Somkanae, a political reporter from Thai Rath and member of Thai Journalists Association (TJA).
Ms. Pirongrong traced the rise of media customised to each political spectrum to the 1997 Constitution, which allowed new media outlets to be set up more easily. Cable and satellite TV enjoyed dramatic surge throughout the decade of 2000s, she said, and it was cable TV which fired the first shot in the media battle that would define Thailand in the next 6-7 years.
Mr. Sondhi Limthongkul, leader of the ?Yellowshirts?, became a popular figure when he launched ASTV channel to mobilise his supporters after his talk show on Channel 9 was shut down, Ms. Pirongrong said, while the proto-Redshirts movement was partially started by a group of Thai Rak Thai veterans who formed PTV channel in 2007 – which was prevented from broadcasting by the regime at the time.
"Censorship backfires," Ms. Pirongrong noted, "The media cannot be censored anymore," since the audience and the broadcasters would always find a way to air their views.
The social network is yet another evolution in this ongoing battle of ideas and identity. Citing statistics in which only 24% of those surveyed identify themselves as Reds or Yellows, Ms. Pirongrong observed that "Thais like to claim they have no colour, but when it comes to projecting identities online, they are very open".
The actions include posting photos with political messages or photos of the individuals at political rallies with their friends. Ms. Pirongrong called it "political socialisation". She also jokingly showed a Facebook photo of her mother participating in anti-government rally with her friends – a political view Ms. Pirongrong does not share. 
As Thai people are categorised into Reds and Yellows in the virtual world, they risk hearing only information deemed acceptable by their side, and hate speech against the unseen enemies could be rampant at times, Ms. Pirongrong warned.
"Thai people are very politicised. [With social network], they are mobilised to the unprecedented level," said Ms. Pirongrong, who also serves as Director of Media Policy Centre, "The question is, is social media promoting activism, or is it tearing the country apart?"
Mr. Pravit, meanwhile, criticised the notion propagated by a number of Thai media that foreign media is gullible in its coverage of Thai politics. He cited an example of Andrew Biggs, a well-known Australian columnist, who wrote on the Bangkok Post that CNN is misled to think that the government is being persecuted by a mob.
On the contrary, Mr. Pravit argued, since the discussion of political crisis provided by Thai media is severely limited by lese majeste laws – which criminalises any perceived insult of monarchy – the foreign media is far better equipped to report about the crisis in an insightful manner.
For example, he praised a recent article on the International New York Times which portrayed the mentality of many anti-government protesters who saw their campaign as a crusade against former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his alleged anti-monarchy allies.
"The foreign media are more honest," Mr. Pravit said. 
He also criticised many members of Thai media for ignoring to recognise the apparent "social class warfare" being waged on the streets of Bangkok. 80% of middle class and the elite are on the anti-Thaksin and royalist faction, Mr. Pravit argued, while 80% of working class or lower social classes are on Mr. Thaksin′s side.
"Also, if there′s no class, then why are we still crawling down in front of His Majesty the King?" Mr. Pravit asked.



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