Opinion: Time to listen to Thailand beyond Twitter

“Nothing is so firmly believed,” the skeptic Michel de Montaigne once wrote, “as that which we least know.” 

A fitting corollary to be added could be that nothing is so confidently tweeted as that which we least understand.

It is the nature of social media that we create our own bubbles of information. We follow like-minded people who write things we generally agree with, while algorithms filter in posts that align with our own beliefs. Even venturing out of our own timelines is no guarantee that we have left our silos; the odds are that popular hashtags are driven by people of broadly similar demographics and views.

And so it often appears that Twitter users in Thailand speak with what seems like an almost uniform voice, regularly pushing a multitude of hashtags slamming the government for its inadequacies. #รัฐบาลเฮงซวย (“crappy government”), #ผนงรจตกม (“we’re all going to die because of our stupid leaders”): these are some recurring favorites.

Indeed, judging from Twitter alone, it would appear that the government is consistently on the verge of falling, but unfortunately, digital truths sometimes collide ungraciously with analog realities. 

Take, for example, the aftermath of Lampang by-election, when the hashtag #เลือกตั้งซ่อมลำปาง (“Lampang byelection”) began filling up with angry recriminations. 

“When I see the results of the Lampang by-election, I truly wonder what people who still vote for Palang Pracharath are thinking when the government is doing so terribly,” one netizen tweeted. “I wonder if these election results are real,” another person wrote, “but if it is, then the people of Lampang really learned nothing from how awful this crappy government has been!” 

The palpable rage is understandable because the election was far from normal. Some backroom dealing led to the last-minute withdrawal of the Pheu Thai candidate, which undoubtedly eased Palang Pracharath’s route to victory. Twitter was also abuzz with allegations of election irregularities, and the usual condemnation of old-style patronage politics that continues to permeate provincial elections.

But to focus merely on Pheu Thai’s strange move, or the allegations of the irregularities risks missing a more substantial point: that perhaps the government is nowhere near as weak as one might imagine.

We can take into account the allegations of irregularities, but we cannot deny that PPRP won by a significant margin: over twenty thousand more votes than the Seri Ruam Thai candidate. It was wishful thinking when Thaksin’s opponents claimed his electoral victories were merely due to “vote-buying” or intimidation. The same would seem to apply here. The government obviously has some depth of support among ordinary people. 

This becomes clearer when one takes into account the fact that Lampang was not an isolated event. In December, PPRP won a by-election in Khon Kaen, successfully ousting Pheu Thai. Last October, coalition partner Chartthai Pattana won the Nakhon Pathom election. And in the general election last year, PPRP won more votes than any other party — nowhere near a majority, of course, but still overperforming expectations. 

All contrary to the Twitter narrative of a nation ripe for progressive change, of a country so tired of disguised military rule that it is ready to throw this government out at the first opportunity. 

Undoubtedly, Twitter reflects the voices of a very important demographic; the Twitter crowd skews younger, more progressive, more willing to challenge old norms. It reflects very well the direction that the country may indeed be heading, and the changes that are happening as a new generation steps up to drive the conversation. 

But as the political scientist Yascha Mounk once tweeted, after listening to a focus group of American voters, “Twitter is not the real world.” It is merely part of the real world.

One is reminded of Bernie Sanders’ supporters as they worked themselves into a social media fervor, feverishly anticipating a great wave of revolutionary energy that would propel a self-proclaimed democratic socialist into the White House.

And then the wave crested into a centrist tsunami. 

I, for one, think that the current government is a spent force, one that has responded well to coronavirus but is unequipped to deal with the challenges of the post-pandemic world, just as it ineffectively steered a moribund economy before the crisis. I have no confidence in the unsavory characters that surround the prime minister and increasingly seem to control his government. 

Yet anyone who assumes the rest of the country must feel this way, and them lambasts them as “stupid” when they don’t, falls into the same trap as someone who calls Thakin’s supporters uneducated vote-sellers.

Why do people support Prayut in 2020? Is it because they believe his rule brings social order and stability? Are they satisfied with his public health response? Have they benefitted from the Pracharath program? Do they see him as an honest military man reluctantly but responsibly serving the nation? Are they still scared of Thaksin and just not that fussed by demands for democracy? Perhaps they feel the fragmented opposition has no credible path to government and would rather vote for coalition MPs?

I haven’t done surveys or opinion polling. I cannot claim to know for sure what Lampang’s voters were thinking. What I do know, however, is that burying ourselves deeper into our bubbles, proclaiming the righteousness of our position without accepting any possibility of legitimate challenge, is simply denialism. It is not productive if the goal is to convince and change minds. 

To modify Sun Tzu a little: if you know the other sides’ voters and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred elections. If you know yourself but not what those you seek to persuade are thinking, how can you win? 

The government is not on as wobbly ground as we may be inclined to think. We must listen to Thailand beyond Twitter.


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