Sunday, May 23, 2010

Twitter’s role in Bangkok conflict unprecedented

A few weeks ago, when it was safe and sane to go for dinner in the middle of Bangkok, some colleagues and I were in the middle of dinner at a Japanese restaurant when a loud boom was heard in the distance.

All of three of us reached immediately for our BlackBerries. A year ago, we might have e-mailed our editors to see what the news wires were reporting, or checked a television set for an update. But in Thailand's fast-moving and violent political crisis, there was no time to wait for those “old media” to tell us what was going on.

What we needed to know was: What were people tweeting?

The information came fast and dubious. Two explosions had been heard near the top of Silom Road financial street, where supporters of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva had been gathering at the southern end of the sprawling Red Shirt anti-government protest camp that consumed much of the centre of Bangkok.

Someone tweeted that the sounds were made by bomb blasts, which would have been a serious escalation in the violence. Others suggested they might just be fireworks, which Red Shirts regularly used to target helicopters and light up roofs of buildings where snipers might be hiding. Eventually, the number of tweets about people injured on Silom Road became a body of evidence too large to ignore. We abandoned our sushi and headed to the scene.

Never before has a social media website played the kind of role in a conflict that Twitter has played in Thailand's nine-week-old anti-government uprising, keeping people informed even as it amplified the hate on both sides of the country’s divide. Some say Twitter – or rather its users – may have even saved lives as fighting consumed the streets of Bangkok.

More clearly, it was used by propagandists on both sides to get their message out, and by ordinary Thais to express their frustrations at the situation and to warn each other about which areas of Bangkok to avoid as the city descended into urban warfare. With many websites censored and Thailand's traditional media deeply divided into pro- and anti-government camps, it arguably became the only forum where you could get a clear picture of what was really going on.

“Twitter is the only place where we can say things freely,” said Poomjit Sirawongprasert, an Internet freedom activist who sometimes updates her Twitter feed a dozen times an hour and became one of the go-to sources for information about what was happening in whatever neighbourhood of Bangkok she happened to be in. “The propaganda is not good, but because of the speed, people can check and cross-check. If you put something out there that’s untrue, within 30 minutes the truth will come out because people will show evidence, photos and videos.”

While Twitter was used by the opposition in Iran to organize rallies following last year’s hotly disputed election, it was, for the most part, a one-sided affair with millions of tweets supporting opposition leader Mir Hossein Moussavi’s claim to have won the vote, and few backing the legitimacy of President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. Social media was clearly not a field that the mullahs of Tehran understood or felt comfortable playing on.

In Thailand, Red Shirts hoping to bring down the government fought a tweet-for-tweet information war with backers of Mr. Abhisit’s government. Twitter also hosted front-line reports from veteran war correspondents, first-time freelancers and ordinary citizens caught in the crossfire. Some were enthralling; others were invention.

On at least two occasions – one of them when I was trapped inside the supposed sanctuary of the Wat Pathum temple along with more than 3,000 civilians as it came under fire – the social networking site may have played a role in saving lives.

With my colleague Andrew Buncombe unable to move after being shot Wednesday night inside the temple – and other injured people dying around us from lack of medical care – I first telephoned embassies, hospitals and the International Committee for the Red Cross. Then I put out an all-call on Twitter, hoping my “followers” in Bangkok would use their own contacts to help us.

“Please RT,” I wrote, using the shorthand for “retweet,” or spread the word. “People around me are dying because they can't get to hospital across the road because of fighting.” I attached a picture I had taken with my BlackBerry of three wounded men beside me, one of whom appeared near death after being shot in the back.

“More people will die inside Wat Patum unless we get ceasefire to get to hospital across the road,” I added a few minutes later, as my desperation grew.

Within minutes, my pleas had indeed been retweeted hundreds, maybe thousands of times, in English, Thai and other languages. They were posted on the websites of Britain’s The Guardian newspaper and other international media. People I knew only through Twitter started calling me to check on our situation. More helpfully, others started calling embassies, hospitals and the Thai government.

Eighty minutes later, I was carrying stretchers out to a row of waiting ambulances. “Twitter may just have done this,” was my next update.

A similar situation unfolded the next night in another part of Bangkok when a fire broke out in an apartment block in Din Daeng, a neighbourhood that was the scene of full-scale urban warfare for days this week. “People can't get out, b/c soldiers won't allow anyone to walk thru,” tweeted someone using the account of ThaiVisa, a popular online news forum.

As at the temple a day before, the news was passed around hundreds of times, and tweets from inside the burning building were read out on the local television and radio. Ordinary Thais far away from the scene of the blaze called the government and military and begged them to let fire trucks through. In the end, firefighters got through and the people trapped in the building were saved.

“We all become our own news wire service, breaking stories and events instantly. Did [tweets from inside Wat Pathum] prevent a massacre? Maybe they did. Who knows?” wrote Andrew Spooner, a London-based journalist who waded deep into the Thailand story from afar, tweeting about events from a decidedly pro-Red Shirt perspective.

That partisanship was the ugly side of Twitter’s role in the Thai crisis. While the social networking site did perhaps save lives in a few specific instances, Twitter – and the opportunity it gives to instantly broadcast whatever is on your mind, often from behind a cloak of near-anonymity – also gave Thais and foreigners living here the chance to broadcast vitriolic, often hateful, thoughts to the world, raising the temperature inside this already volatile country and arguably helping nudge the situation toward its violent end.

It was common to read comments on my Twitter feed that compared supporters of Mr. Abhisit to Nazis and followers of the Red Shirt movement to livestock. Each hateful comment seemed to provoke an even nastier response, and by the time the nine-week-old protest came to an end, each side was cheering acts of violence against the other.

It would be easy to dismiss the hate speech as irrelevant noise if not for the fact that both the Red Shirt leadership and Mr. Abhisit’s government were both paying rapt attention to what was being said online. The Red Shirts, under their official name, the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, had Twitter and Facebook pages that not only distributed announcements from the movement’s leadership, but retweeted some of the venom.

Meanwhile, Mr. Abhisit, who has his own Twitter account and whose aides made clear that they were monitoring tweets about the crisis, was clearly aware of the calls nearly every minute on Twitter for him to order a military crackdown against the Red Shirt encampment in the centre of Bangkok.

Most worrisome for the future is that the hate being spewed online tweet-by-tweet is actually a fairly decent mirror of the sentiments in wider Thai society. While only one in five of Thailand’s 63 million people are online, and far fewer have Twitter accounts, the terrible things written on the site were the same sentiments being muttered on street corners and at dinner parties. Twitter didn’t create the hatred, it amplified it.

“To see what was going on, to see live pictures of things happening like that fire, where people got the word out and got fire trucks to come because of Twitter, that was incredibly important,” said Jodi Ettenberg, a Canadian lawyer living in Bangkok who tweeted about being trapped in the Din Daeng neighbourhood during some of the worst fighting.

“But the vitriol was just astounding. It was shocking to see the kinds of things being said in a public forum. To understand it, you needed to understand the feelings and anger that exist in Thai society.”

Ironically, Thailand’s obsession with Twitter was kick-started by the same man many blame for instigating the country’s ongoing political crisis: fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Mr. Thaksin, who was ousted in a 2006 military coup and later convicted in absentia of corruption charges, remains widely popular, but has struggled to communicate with his followers due to government influence over the Thai media.

Last summer, he opened up an account, @thaksinlive, and began using it to attack Mr. Abhisit and his government. Those interested in hearing what he had to say – as well as those who wanted to shout back at him – followed him to the social networking site, quickly creating one of Asia’s largest and most politically charged Twitter communities.

“People were not really that interested in Twitter until Thaksin started using it,” said Ms. Poomjit, the Internet freedom activist. “He made it a trend.”

Mr. Thaksin has only tweeted once since the military crackdown began on Wednesday. “I would like to express my condolences to those who are killed and wounded,” he wrote while the fighting was still raging.

Since then, his normally active account has gone silent. But the shouting match he started is only getting louder.

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