Thailand and the media! That’s a very special kind of relationship, one that is often thought to be rather superficial thanks to the success of lakorns (soap operas) and the huge amount of following they amass. However just leaving it with ‘it’s superficial’ seems rather one dimenisional and too easy of an excuse. There is certainly more going on in the relationship between Thais and people in Thailand and the media they are using and the way they are using it. Media, in Thailand, is more than just something to waste time on, it has power – to influence and to shape opinions, to move people and to transmit messages – and hence is worth taking a closer look at.
Thailand’s Media Usage
While Thailand isn’t a big of a player on the global scale media, of course, is incredible important in every day life here, just as it is in any other country on this planet.
Newspapers and TV are still widely popular in Thailand and I don’t see an end to that soon. Obviously less (younger) people are reading paper based newspapers (34 daily newspapers in Thailand!) however the older (65% of Thais are over 25 years of age) population and the people living in less urban areas outside of the Bangkok bubble still heavily rely on traditional media to get their daily dose of affordable (not everyone can afford tech gadgets and internet) news and information.
When taking a look at new media and its usage it is clear that, like in most other countries, this form of media is rapidly evolving and gaining users as we speak. There’s no denying in that and the graphics below show clearly that even Thailand can’t stop that development. In fact Thailand has become almost somewhat of a mobile first market by now as the number of mobile phone and mobile internet users suggests. Compared to its population the number of facebook users in Bangkok alone is insane which reflect in the interaction rate in terms of ‘likes’ of celebrity and business profiles on the world’s biggest social network.
Thailand’s Media Dependency
Having the intro down, now it’s intersting to see how the media actually influences people here in Thailand and how Thais and people in Thailand depend on it. We’ll be starting with the same differentiation as in the beginning.
As stated above traditional media is still the predominant media force around with numbers still (slightly) exceeding new media users and reception. With a circulation of almost 12 million daily newspapers it’s no surprise that this medium is still considered important. The same, of course, goes for TV.
What is shown on TV or printed in the newspaper is widely considered to be the guideline or truth since there is, for many, no other way of obtaining information. Therefore having biased media outlets can lead to misinformation and opinion shaping based on corporate / individual agendas. This very often shows when it comes to political conflicts. However traditional media could also easier to regulate and control.
Now that all sounds rather familiar since this is the case in most countries. At least to some extend. What separates Thailand now in terms of media influence however is how much fictional shows and stories influence every day life and the perception thereof. Productions that should not have any influence of any kind on daily life are often found to be driving forces behind behavioral patterns. This is especially found to be true when it comes to violent behavior (e.g. “Loan sharks kills girlfriend, supposed lover, and himself“).
New Media, of course, has a bit of a different appeal to it than traditional media and while celebrities and brand pages are the ones with the most likes it is usually messages that deliver some kind ‘woah really?!’ or ‘wtf I knew it’ that get the most attention. That is certainly the case in most countries, the problem here in Thailand however seems to be that there is even less fact checking involved than in other regions. “If it’s on the internet (facebook, pantip, etc.) it must be true” is a meme that highlights the opposite but in Thailand that, very often, still seems to be taken as a true statement. Helloooo fake news!
Moreover Social Media very often takes over the ‘real’ media in terms of engagement (obviously, since it’s much easier to engage there) and ‘importance’ when it comes to ‘the talk of the day’. What makes it big on Social Media is then not necessarily what is the most ‘important’ news but rather the one that drives engagement and / or outrage the most (e.g. December 2016, fake travel pictures of former flight attend dominate social media).
New Media, moreover, is also often used as a tool to mobilize masses and to spread, true or false, (political) opinions. With politics being such a sensitive topic in Thailand it is no wonder that those acts often end in tirades involving thousands of social media users (as seen in the “Nong Best” incident). With always being “Kreng Jai” and political correct and submissive in real life, Social Media often seems to be the outlet for users to let their anger and frustration out and to share extreme opinions, pieces and articles.
Lastly it also is interesting to notice how ‘celebrities’ use New Media to not only further their stardom but also to avoid unpleasant experiences (“if you do something bad, you simply do something nice and promote it on social media so people will forgive you” seems to be the common approach here – see Khun Nott who became a monk for a short amount of time to rid himself from his sins.)
This all doesn’t mean that New Media only has a bad influence on Thai society though. It also enables its users to show more creativity, involvement in causes they believe in and freedom of expression (if applicable).
Elephant in the room: Censorship & Prosecution
While doing research on censorship in Southeast Asia it became pretty obvious that many countries here still have a tight grip on what is happening in the media. This is, of course, a bit more difficult when it comes to Social Media since it’s not that easy to control what is being posted in real time. However, the consequences of posting something against government guidelines and laws can be quite severe which often leads to Social Media users not discussing or sharing their opinions honestly and fully. This more of censorship via intimidation than real censoring (since nothing is posted that would have to be censored) but even better for those in charge. Nevertheless once in a while drastic opinions make it onto the web and then spread like wildfire and often lead to arrests, fines or jail time. This is another reason that leads to media users not caring for ‘real’ stuff neither in traditional nor new media. “We can’t change anything because we can’t say anything” quite often leads to “i don’t care, i just want to be entertained” + “I don’t want to think” which then, in return, explains perfectly what I mentioned in the beginning of this article which is the influence of soap operas and ‘stupid’ news on every day life.
What are your experiences with (new) media usage in Southeast Asia? Do you think I’m off or on the wrong track? Would love some opinions. Shout out in the comments! Thank you!