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Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Opinion: Social Media as Thailand’s Public Sphere of Last Resort


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After sending me messages that he has deactivated his Facebook page because he received a warning as a result of criticizing a recent royal motorcade, I rang up the young political activist.

The activist, who asked not to be named, is known for being critical of the monarchy on Facebook and is usually rather cocky – a political exhibitionist.

But now, he sounded fearful.

The man pulled the plug off Facebook on Thursday night after receiving an SMS claiming to be from the palace.

“Please delete all your social network accounts by tonight for your safety,” the English-language message reads. There is no available phone number to call back, only the ominous sender’s identification as “Royal Thai Palace.”

Such method was never deployed before, I told him on the phone, and therefore its usage is really dubious.

Normally either the police or soldiers will contact you by phone or in person for infringements against the lese-majeste law. Then there is the issue of the language. Why English? And why no number to call back? Also, the office is known as the Royal Household Bureau in English, not “Royal Thai Palace.”

Thus, I think it’s fake and from an imposter, not the Royal Household Bureau and suggested he to go to his mobileservice provider to check the number of the sender, or just call the Royal Bureau Household for verification.

However, he didn’t commit himself and told me his lawyers told him to lie low for the meantime.

“I think you are being taken for a ride. It’s most likely a bluff from [Thai] social media users who are out to scare you and create a climate of fear,” I told him.

I tried to contact the Royal Household Bureau several times, but with no luck as of press time (a palace official told Prachatai website he hasn’t heard of the message, and suggested that it’s probably a hoax).

While I think it’s most likely an impostor sending him the SMS as a bluff, his fear was real. And the climate of fear in critically speaking your mind about the monarchy is very real.

As we were winding down our conversation on the phone Friday afternoon, the activist told me a brief SMS message in English without number was sent to him just now.

“Thanks for your cooperation,” it read.

This came after a few days of netizens, particularly Twitter users, airing their anger at traffic woes caused by a royal motorcade on Tuesday which forced many roads and intersections to shut down during rush hour.

A Twitter hashtag in Thai-language #RoyalMotorcade quickly trended on Wednesday and reached a height of over 716,000 tweets by Thursday morning.

Those affected said they were stranded in traffic for nearly an hour. Some said they saw police instructing an on-duty ambulance to turn off the siren. One such Tweet, from user @peeoioixx was retweeted 63,900 times as of Friday afternoon despite the user having just 1,261 followers.

While it’s not clear which member of the royal family was travelling on Tuesday, what’s clear is the wrath expressed by the anonymous netizens – many using avatars on Twitter and Facebook.

Some feel invisible and unrestrained by the draconian lese-majeste law because they feel they cannot be easily identified on Twitter and won’t be held accountable.

The activist who contacted me used his real name and family name on Facebook, however. He is fairly well-known among political activists and beyond.

If anything, the fact that the mainstream media simply censored themselves from reporting about the incident only made social media the only option for people to vent out their frustration.

The incident reminds us that in Thailand, certain topics cannot be publicly deliberate without severe risks.

It also tells us that many are now taking the risks to express critical views about the monarchy anonymously on social media.

Social media has become Thai public sphere of last resort to discuss what most of the mainstream mass media won’t even dare consider.


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