Mobilizing the ‘Orange’ Online Support: Part II of the Futurista Campaigning
Updated: Nov 26, 2019
By Aim Sinpeng
See Part I of the Futurista Series
Figure 1: Google Search Results for Pheu Thai (Yellow), Future Forward Party (Blue), Palang Pracharath (Red) and the Democrat Party (Green), from February 1 – March 31, 2019
Source: Google Trends
It was a windowless room on the fifth floor of the Thai Summit Tower. There was hardly any natural light; the blinds were 24/7 shut and there were two folded up mattresses on the floor and one small messy table with a few laptops in the middle of the room.
“This is the war room of the Future Forward Party where all the major decisions about campaigning got made,” said Supachai, the party’s social media campaign director. “This room is where it all happened – how we won 6 million votes.”
The FFP social media team – composed of four members in their 20s – punched above their weight when it came to the party’s social media success. Looking at the Google search results (figure 1) and the overall engagement rate on the Facebook pages of key parties a(figure 2), Pheu Thai was still the most popular party online. But the fact that a brand-new party like Future Forward could come in second was no small feat.
Did Future Forward win 6 million votes because of social media? Making a causal claim regarding social media’s impact on voting decision has always been difficult for researchers largely because of the pluralistic and interconnected nature of the media ecosystem. But, understanding how the party’s social media campaign strategy worked may shed light on how the party was able to mobilize a groundswell of support online.
Figure 2: Overall engagement rate of seven major political parties, November 1, 2018 – March 24, 2019
Source: Author’s post in New Mandala
First, FFP targeted youths and young votersonline and offline. “Our goal is to win as many votes as we can in constituencies that have universities,” said Fluke from the social media team. “University students are our core target because they are largely urban, educated, online and influential within their families.” FFP does not use paid influencers or celebrity endorsements (largely because there were none) or “hire paid trolls” as critics have accused them of, according to its social media team. “We only have enough money to boost Facebook posts for events every now and then. We only believe in growing organic support base because those are the ones who will convert into genuine votes.”
Looking at the numbers of those who like the FFP Facebook page, the focus on younger voters makes sense. Fans aged 13-34 account for a staggering 74% of their fan base on Facebook. The media team – both online and offline – are tasked with finding content that would be “trendy” for young people
Source: A screen grab of FFP Facebook Insight (March – May 2019) authorised by FFP Social Media Team
Second, FFP sought to convert red and yellow parents into orange fans. The focus on the 13-17 age group is non-accidental. The party believes that young people are influencers of their families: they could persuade older members of the families – like the parents – whom to vote for. Pitsanulok’s constituency 1 campaign team – which unexpectedly beat a three-time MP from the Democrat Party, Dr Warong Dechgitvigrom — said “Teenagers might initially be attracted to us because we are ‘the cool and trendy party.’ They may have heard of us on Thanathorn from TV or from their friends. From this initial interest they came to our Facebook page and read about us – they liked our policies that targeted young people. Then they told their parents to vote for them, for their future. They turned their yellow-shirted parents into orange.” ‘Ong’ Padipat Santhipada, the elected Pitsanulok MP, let his social media team do the work online while he focused all his effort on foot. “My goal was to visit my constituency seven times if I could. Often I would visit older people, they would tell me, ‘oh, the orange party, don’t worry my kids already told me to vote for you.” “We knew then that our social media campaigning was bearing results on the grounds, turning a yellow stronghold to orange.”
Yanthicha Buapeun, a newly elected MP of Chanthaburi constituency 3 said she was most impressed with how youths advocated for FFP to their families. “When I was growing up, as a child, you’d ask your parents which party to vote for. But this time, while I was walking door-to-door during my campaign, very frequently I would hear chaobansay ‘Pak anakot mai [FFP], is that you? Yes, my kids and grandkids already told me to vote for you.’ I’m most impressed because I think we are seeing a cultural shift in how we vote. Young people today are mostly online, they’re often the first to get new information. They’re curious and are confident in what they believe in. And they’re not afraid to tell their parents what they think. They have become our most valuable vote canvassers.”
Third, FFP focused on social media engagement. Thai politicians on social mediaare famous for being “top-down” – using social media to talk atpeople, not withpeople. Social media campaigning researchhas shown that active engagement with online fans is critical for offline mobilization. Ong understood the importance of social media game well especially for targeting young voters.
“The Change We Need for khon Pit-loke”
Source: Ong Paditpat’s public FB page, 85K views, 5300 likes, 488 comments and 552 shares https://www.facebook.com/OngPadipat/
Picture: A sample of Comments on Ong's Facebook
An engaging politician on social media is one who actively interacts with the public. On Facebook, this means, replying to comments, which is the offline equivalent of answering a question. On the right column, one can see Ong’s social media team responded to every comment written about this video. This high level of engagement through replies is highly unusual for Thai politicians, who mostly spend their time pushing out their messages but not actually interacting with fans. As for Ong’s online competition – he had none. The local favorite, Democrat’s Dr Warong, did not campaign at all online. His last post on his Facebook’s public page was in 2015. Settha Kittijanurak, a former member of Pitsanulok’s Provincial Administrative Organization Council and candidate from Palang Pracharath, relied solely on his own personal page and did not campaign publicly on social media.
It’s possible that both these candidates targeted LINE, which does require personal networks. LINE is where FFP social media admitted to being “least successful.” FFP sees LINE campaigning is distinctly different on any other type of social media campaigning. “We couldn’t get much traction on LINE, to be honest. None of us [in the social media team] really knew how to campaign on LINE properly – we’re strong on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Palang Pracharat is really good with LINE. We have a lot to learn,” admitted Supachai.
Fourth, FFP dominated in most social media channels– Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram. This online domination on social networking sites created a real sense of popularity that then helped MP candidates on the ground who where going door-to-door to meet constituencies. On Twitter, as figure 3 below shows, when searching for any configuration of hashtags relating to the 2019 elections, #FFP (#อนาคตใหม่) appeared as the most relevant hashtag. No other political party even appears on the search results except for the dissolved Thai Raksa Chart.
Source: Analysis based on hashtagify.me
On YouTube, Future Forward Party is the only major political party with its own channel. YouTube is the second most popularsocial media platform in Thailand, after Facebook. Having a dedicated YouTube channel mattersgreatly to creating and mobilizing online support because that’s how a party grow its ‘brand.’ Having active followers to your channel helps to spread your message, increase content views, and build brand identity. For a new, no-name party, FFP was remarkableon YouTube. Looking at its YouTube performance (figure 4), FFP has nearly 300,000 subscribers and almost 20 million views on its 359 uploads. This levelof engagement is similar to a number of popular singers in Thailand.
Figure 4: Future Forward YouTube Statistics (November 2018 – July 2019)
Source: Author’s own calculation (as of July 29, 2019)
A more important benefit of being active and popular on YouTube is that it is completely intertwined with traditional media. TV is still the most popular media of choice for Thais. But because all major TV channels have their YouTube channels, what gets aired on TV also gets put up on it’s YouTube channel. The best clips get aired live both on TV and on YouTube at the same time, which was the case for the Thairath election debates for example. The first election debate, held on February 11, was viewed on YouTube 1.8 million times and likely the biggest single contributor to FFP’s YouTube popularity, as the party gained more than 10,000 new subscribers during and immediately after the debate aired. This was bigger than the #ฟ้ารักพ่อhashtag, which was the most trendingTwitter hashtag in Thailand just prior to the debate. #ฟ้ารักพ่อ[Fah loves daddy] is a hashtag coined by Thanathorn’s fan on Twitter, which made a reference to a famous evening soap. Most media agreedthis hashtag brought Thanathorn from obscurity to idol status for Thai netizens. I will elaborate further on the #ฟ้ารักพ่อphenomenon and how Thanathorn became a “net idol” from this viral hashtag in my future post.
“At first no one knew us when we introduced ourselves, our party. But after the Thairath debate, we approached people and most of them said ‘don’t worry we will vote for you” said Kwanlert Panichmat, elected Chonburi MP constituency 5. Kwanlert’s win was another surprise victory as he defeated a long-time Palang Chon politician, Pansak Katewattha.
“Before the February debate, I thought at best I could get 5,000 votes,” admitted Jirat Thongsuwan, now an elected MP for Chacheongsao constituency 4. “But after the debate, I felt maybe I could really win this.”
Source: Author’s own calculation, cr. Socialblade
Social media is not everything, of course. But its role in catapulting Thanathorn to “net idol” status, creating and mobilizing online support for Future Forward party as a whole, and boosting the fortunes of individual constituency candidates can not be underestimated. Social media is especially important for new political parties like FFP that lack a legacy, established political machine, reputation, and brand. It is the quickest way to create a brand and cultivate grassroots support that can then fill gaps and reinforce offline campaigning. As a poorly-resourced political party, Future Forward party could not have won 6 million votes without such active and engaging social media campaigning.
The social media team actually only works ‘part-time’ on social media. Much of their time is spent on traditional media, designing offline campaign materials. They only spent time on social media if there was any ‘spare time left.’