Twitter Analysis of the Thai Free Youth Protests
by Aim Sinpeng
Source: Twitter @Citizen2600
“Let’s run, Hamtaro, the most delicious food is the people’s taxes” shouted Thai protesters as more than a thousand high school and university students ran around the Democracy Monument demanding democracy and justice on July 26. The Hamtaro protest idea, inspired by a popular Japanese cartoon, was crowdsourced on Twitter with the hashtag #IdeaForMob (#ไอเดียออกม็อบ) just 3 days before the protest. “Judy,” a second-year Thammasat University student, who had the winning idea of the Hamtaro run, revealed her motivation for the rally: “I’m fed up with the inequalities and injustice in Thailand. Uncle Prayuth needs to dissolve parliament. We are the Hamtaros who are being crushed by the cage we live in – the social structures are crushing us – so we need to get out of the cage and run for survival and demand change.” By August 16, the #FreeYouth protest has evolved to one of #FreePeople, culminating in tens of thousands protesters on the streets – the largest rally since the 2014 military coup.
The Twitter-coordinated youth-led anti-government rallies mark a new chapter in Thailand’s protest playbook. Never before has Thailand witnessed the leadership and participation of high school students in political protests at this scale, with nearly daily acts of defiance at schools across the country such as the showing of the Hunger Games three-finger salute during the morning national anthem. High school students were first mobilised both online and offline by the campaigning of the Future Forward Party in connection with the 2019 election. A favourite party among youths the parties mobilization efforts helped drive support for its leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, with the viral hashtag #ฟ้ารักพ่อ (#FahLovesFather). The dissolution of the FFP in early February 2020 set in motion a wave of university student-led flash mobs that grew until the country went into a pandemic-induced lockdown at the end of March. As lockdown restrictions eased in June, anti-government rallies restarted against, led by the Student Union of Thailand and its allies and prompted by the forced disappearance of a Thai human rights activist, Wanchalearm Satsaksit, who was living in exile in Cambodia.
So why have some high school students engaged in this round of political protest? Examining their protest messaging online and offline, speeches at rallies and interviews with the media, the grievances of high school students are directed at authority figures at three levels: 1) parents, 2) teachers/school administrators and 3) political leaders. The top 10 most viral tweets relating to the hashtag #เลิกเรียนแล้วไปกระทรวง (#AfterschoolLetsGototheMinistry) – a campaign led by high school protest groups – give us some insight into the origins of youth discontent. Young people feel that adults in their lives treat them like immature, naïve subjects who cannot think for themselves. Some feel suffocated by their conservative yellow-shirt parents, who either took them to the yellow shirt protests or made them watch news from the Nation growing up. Some of the current influential figures inside the Free Youth movement credited Twitter for “opening their eyes” to alternative sources of information, expanding their knowledge of politics and motivating them to become activists. The most viral hashtag on Twitter on Mother’s Day, August 12, was #ชวนแม่เลิกดูเนชั่น (Let’sGetMomToStopWatchingTheNation), which rapidly evolved to a demand for advertising boycott of the Nation.
Figure 1: Content analysis of the most trending tweets related to #เลิกเรียนแล้วไปกระทรวง(#AfterschoolLetsGototheMinistry)
Student protesters also see schools as “their first dictatorship.” Entrenched greivances towards conservative and “nonsensical” rules dictating the length of haircuts, school uniforms, and the colour of female students’ bras has long been the focal point of youth discontent for years, coupled with daily injustice observed by students such as teachers cutting in line during lunch has compounded their resentment towards the teachers and the broader system. Youths feel their future foreshortened as the education system routinely punishes individuality, advantages the rich and nurtures a repressive culture. They look at the political leaders and do not see them as role models, but rather corrupt self-interested elites, who do not live by the high moral standards they set for others and see young people not as equal citizens, but rather “kids” who should obey adults. “If you think students should know our place and shouldn’t be involved in politics, then neither should the military,” said one of the student leaders.
Figure 2: Network analysis of #เยาวชนปลดแอก (#FreeYouth), August 16-19, 2020
Note: Large nodes such as rukitori_ , mcke32, jrt2644 and new53266620 are not politicians, celebrities or journalists but are active Twitter users
Another defining feature of the Free Youth movement is its organisational structure and the pivotal role played by Twitter. Organisationally, the youth protests are less structured, more decentralised and less connected to political parties compared to their predecessors. These are key characteristics of a “networked movement,” according to Manuel Castells, which include a decentred structure to maximise participation, reduce the vulnerability for repression and create space for autonomous actions. The network analysis of #เยาวชนปลดแอก (#FreeYouth), one of the most viral hashtags in recent weeks, shows that the horizontality of the current free youth movement, as the influencers online are all ordinary people, not journalists or celebrities, which stand in contrast to a Facebook-mediated movement of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) back in 2013/2014 led by a seasoned politician, Suthep Tuagsuban. While the youth movement’s original intention was to have a flat organisational structure without clear leadership – mimicking the opposition movement in Hong Kong – influential figures of different groups within the movement emerged because the movement draws on support from already existing student groups that have key organisers. Nonetheless, in comparison to past political movements, like the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship or the PDRC, the current youth movement is far less formally organised and more reflexive.
The rise of Twitter as a main protest mobilisation platform was new and driven by a significant uptake of the social media platform by young Thais between the age of 18 to 24 in the past few years. Much of the Thai Twitter culture centres on k-pop and anime, which have all been used as key symbols of youth discontent. Indeed, a recent We Are Social survey of social media use shows that Thai Twitter users are overwhelmingly female, which may explain why so many female students showed up at the Hamtaro rally. Twitter allows for a greater sense of anonymity as users are not saddled by the obligations of having to accept friend requests from their parents and relatives – allowing them greater personal freedom to follow controversial conversations and express political beliefs through their k-pop inspired pseudonyms. It is also easier to have fake names and profile photos on Twitter than Facebook, which allows users a greater sense of anonymity. The top supporters of the 10-point demands on Twitter, which directly asks for reforms of the monarchy, were largely users with k-pop profile images and gibberish names, masking their real identities.
But the Free Youth Movement is a hybrid movement that draws on significant resources of already established organisations, like student associations at different university campuses. It also relies on the physical structures of schools and universities that naturally bring people together, allowing them the opportunity to discuss political ideas, share information and build solidarity. What has Twitter and other social media platforms provided the youth protesters that they otherwise would not have? As Zeynep Tufekci notes in her seminal book, Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, social media can be pivotal for rebellions to take off, rapidly amass supporters and push for adhocratic offline protests – often using humour and expressive communication style. What the beginning stage of the Free Youth movement has shown is that Twitter has been important to recruit and mobilise supporters, and to create an open and participatory protest space for new ideas to emerge. The drawbacks of digitally mediated networks are that, as they grow in size, inequality in participation will inevitably emerge as some figures will officially or unofficially become the spokespersons of the movement. The important tasks associated with traditional organisations, such as building collective capacities across different groups and making collective decision-making, will eventually have to be done otherwise the movement could wither away when under pressure.