Well-meaning progressive project backfires; causes chain reaction of cyber-bullying

An online social experiment by senior students at Chulalongkorn University, designed to reveal hidden prejudices in Thai society, sparked outrage this week among the public and members of the LGBTQ+ community for its approach and research methodology. 

The experiment, which was meant to present themes of social judgment and the influence of social media, showed scripted interviews by three hosts (Minju, Prim, and Carrot) giving bigoted beauty advice as well as endorsing regressive attitudes towards transgender and non-binary people under a fake Youtube channel called Umm ก็สวยอยู่ (Hmm.. You’re Kind of Pretty). 

In the third episode, the hosts, still acting, were seen apologizing to the viewers for their insensitive remarks, which included one of the hosts saying that although homosexuality is now acceptable, not every man can dress as a woman and look good due to their body and size.

At the end of the video, the hosts then asked viewers to participate in an online survey to answer whether the show should continue and provide feedback. 

The channel soon went viral across social media platforms nationwide, with netizens mostly condemning and shaming the hosts. Upon the backlash received, the episodes were taken down. 

The creators and cast then uploaded a public apology on Monday evening. They revealed that they were in fact students from the faculty of Communication Arts, Chulalongkorn University, and the show was a part of their “experimental performance” to reflect on cyberbullying for a senior thesis project under the Department of Speech Communication and Performing Arts.

Everything, from the actors and dialogue, were scripted.

“We want to emphasize that these characters and scripts are all made up and created by us – we purposely did this to stir drama and a reaction,” one of the creators said.

“Please do not attack the private individuals or actors, but post your comments and criticisms on the page.”

The students ended by saying that the responses received has shown the “power that everyone in society has at hand,” and hopes that “everyone can become aware of the violence and power of social judgment in society and use them carefully,” thus concluding the objective of their thesis.

The revelation did not go down well with the public, those who were appalled by it took to social media to express their outrage.

With over 380,000 tweets under the hashtag #ummก็สวยอยู่, netizens, as well as activists and members of the LGBTQ+ community criticized the lack of judgment, awareness, and sensitivity of the students and faculty for carrying such an experiment. 

Netizens were also enraged that a leading educational institution such as Chulalongkorn would approve of a study that would breach ethical boundaries – that is, by not asking for consent from its participants, and creating narratives that would further marginalize and damage a community they apparently intend to defend. 

“Imagine a trans person coming across that video, who might already be experiencing gender dysphoria, some identity issue or day-to-day struggle, not knowing that the whole video is a set-up, what could that video do to them mentally?” commented Anant Utchin, a Thai non-binary and lecturer on queer literature at Thammasat University’s faculty of liberal arts.

A lesson learned 

“It is often already very taxing for gender-nonconforming people to navigate this society without any fabricated drama. Trans and nonbinary people are not here to be someone’s experiment without their consent.” said Anant.

The Speech Communication and Performing Arts department of Chulalongkorn issued an official statement on Wednesday, recognizing the damages they have caused.

“The department is deeply sorry and would like to sincerely apologize for the impact and emotional pain this project has caused to society, as well as the students, actors and their families who are involved in the project,” the statement reads.

“Both the faculty and students who are involved in the production of this thesis are deeply saddened by this situation, and sincerely admit to their mistakes.”

“As a department that is solely and directly responsible for this, we would like to use this space to formally express our apology to society,” the letter continued. “The department is aware that any apology cannot compensate for the impact that is caused, but we will ensure that the same mistake will not ever happen again in the future.” 

The letter concluded with the department thanking the public for providing their feedback and further awareness of the role, responsibility and duty they should take as communicators. They also vowed to continue to strive for better teaching and learning for the benefit of society. 

An unforgivable mistake?

Despite having issued two public apologies, taking down its content, and terminating the thesis project — the backlash continued. Many netizens felt that the apologies were not enough in undoing the damage caused, and demanded for the faculty and students to do more in solving the issue. Some even went as far as tracking down the personal social media accounts of the actors to ridicule them.

“Look at your face, you are a girl but boys are even prettier than you,” one Twitter user fired. “We don’t accept someone like you in society,” said another. In a separate Facebook comment, a user took a screenshot of one of the girls’ photos and vandalized it.

The attacks and cyberbullying became unrelenting, with one of the actors having to turn off her notifications and stop checking her phone. The actor, who asked not to be named, told Thai Enquirer that she was a graduate of the faculty, and was merely helping out the seniors for the thesis project.

“I admit that I was shortsighted, we film thesis projects and act them out all the time. It wasn’t carefully thought out, and it is fair that it received the negative criticism that it did,” she said. “But I am not the character that I portrayed, I am just an actor playing out a script – you can criticize the script and the character, but I don’t think it is fair to personally criticize me.”

“They [netizens] mock how I am and how I look, criticize my face and body shame me. I stopped checking the comments and messages,” she added. “But if they really know that cyberbullying is wrong, then why are they doing it too? Why does society not know that this is something that should be stopped?”

Other netizens also voiced that sharing the photos of the actors, reuploading the clips and bullying the students has crossed the line, and asked for the criticism to be directed elsewhere – such the real problematic public figures and programs in Thai society. 

“I don’t condone going after people in a malicious way after they have apologized for what they did, especially unintentionally,” said Anant. “I believe that it just comes down to the notion that we have to try to consider things more from others’ perspectives, to go out of our way and put ourselves more in someone else’s shoes.”

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