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Thai political unrest: Don’t be used, think before you share

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Thailand is dealing with another bout of political unrest right now. So far, at least three people have been killed during violent clashes between government and protestors from both the pro- and anti-government sides. However, due to many of the TV stations being state-owned or belonging to one side of the political divide, Thai people claim that it’s hard to get unbiased news on free TV. Thus, people have turned to social media for news. What I’ve found is that it isn’t much (or any) better.

The capital of Thailand, Bangkok is the epicenter of the protests. It is also the city with the greatest Facebook population in the world. In total, Thailand has 24 million Facebook users. Therefore, it’s not surprising to see people turn to social media as their main source of information when they lose trust in traditional media.

But there are many risks when everyone can become a citizen journalist. Rumors flood across social media. Thailand feeds on drama, and during a crisis like this one, people are even more emotional. Political activism is an important part of democracy, but the Thai rumor mill has not been helpful when combined with social media. Political rumors on social media in Thailand can lead to escalation of conflict and that’s exactly what we’ve seen in the past several weeks.

Because of that, I’ve seen some people start using Facebook as a channel urging their friends to be calm and not to use or express violence while others have asked people to “think before posting”. I couldn’t agree more with this sentiment.

Since such a large number of people rely on the internet and social media for facts regarding the protests, I want to ask people not to share or comment on messages with unidentified sources or unconfirmed news. I’ve seen many posts that start with “Heard about this” and then end with “Please share”. When you’re asking people to share hearsay with no verifiable or identifiable source, there is huge potential for spreading misinformation that adds fuel to the fire.

I do believe most people have good intentions and want to help spread the “news” as quickly as possible, but when doing it naively, you could become a victim of someone who wants to use the power of people’s eagerness to spread lies. That happens whichever end of the political spectrum you stand on.

I also want to touch on the subject of the King, which is arguably the most sensitive issue in the country. It’s a well-known fact that Thai people love and respect the King. This has motivated some factions to take advantage of the situation. I’ve seen rumors with some people claiming that the King is sending the soldiers to help, which has later claimed by others to be false (as of right now there’s no official statement regarding where the soldiers are from). The intention was not bad, perhaps.

The people who shared only want to share their gratitude to the King who, according to the post, helped the student protestors out at a time when the police ignored them. Today, the Facebook fan page of Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, which has over one million followers, posted a status that asked people to not share the King’s speech cut into parts, as people can take it out of context. 

Remember, while social media is a powerful tool in democracy and civil society, you need to be careful with it.

(Image credit: 3ho8 instagram)

(Editing by Steven Millward)

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