But authoritarian regimes less likely to take full advantage of interactivity
ON SUNDAY morning, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen posted 10 pictures of his family life on his Facebook, including a picture showing him siting on a bed with his grandchildren.
On his timeline, he wrote in Khmer: “When I returned from the Asean-US meeting, I said I had a debt to pay ... I added that it is difficult to repay a debt for grandchildren who ask for gifts” – which explained why he had posted pictures of children playing and eating.
Hun Sen has used social media to communicate with the people for quite sometime. His first post was seen in 2010. Initially, the posts were very formal and mostly focused on his work as premier. Recently, however, posts have looked informal, casual and even personal, showing him spending his life as ordinary people do, eating on the street, watering plants in a Phnom Penh park and talking with farmers in a paddy field. These messages make strongman Hun Sen appear as an accessible and friendly leader.
The prime minister has joined other Asean leaders who are keen on using social media for political communication. He has millions of followers.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore is also among the frontrunners who know how to use social media to communicate with citizens effectively. His posts cover a wide range of issues and activities relating to his government’s strategies and policies.
Last week, he came across a BBC article on China’s women-only mosques. He shared the article with comments saying, “Every major religion expresses itself in diverse ways and traditions. Its followers adapt the customs and practices of the religion to their own societies and circumstances, enriching the heritage. Islam is no different. Muslims in Singapore have their own identity and culture, and have every reason to be proud of it.”
Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak mostly posts in the Malay language to communicate with his fellow citizens. He is quite active on social media with a few posts per day covering many issues and activities he is involved in as the head of the government. Najib has also used Facebook to share his feelings with other Malaysians on topics such as the wonderful free kick scored by Faiz Subri of the Malaysian Super League football club Penang recently.
In Myanmar, where Internet service is not as good but is improving, outgoing President Thein Sein has an official account managed by his office for communications. But the leader who is more keen on this is the military commander in chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. The commander always uses Facebook to promote his activities, mostly regarding his military career and politics. Meetings with Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy party won the election in November, were reported on his page in Burmese language and sometimes in English.
Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo and Philippine President Benigno Aquino also have their own social media presence.
All of these leaders have been present on key social media platforms – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, and the messages conveyed on each medium are mostly similar.
Leaders generally do not customise the message format and form when communicating on different platforms. That might be because leaders believe that people who use different platforms belong to different groups, said Chanut Kerdpradub (@Ajbomb), an expert in social media at the Faculty of Business Administration and Liberal Arts at Rajamangala University of Technology Lanna.
“In democratic countries where politicians have to compete to gain popularity among the people, leaders will more actively communicate with people on social media,” Chanut said.
However, most Asean leaders do not engage well with people on social media since they love one-way communication, although social media is meant to be interactive, he said.
“While video is a highly engaging type of content on social media, most Asean leaders are not doing well using video,” Chanut said.
The popularity of social media platforms also reflects the freedom of communication in the country, Chanut said. In authoritarian countries, Twitter will not be popular while Facebook will be the main social media platform.
“People actively express their political opinion on Twitter, while they are likely to comment in general on Instagram or Facebook, which is in the in-between,” said Chanut.
Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, however, has no presence on any social media platform as he enjoys his weekly TV show and press interviews.
“Rather than using airtime on television, the government should utilise social media as a communication channel to push messages and to get engagement,” Chanut said.
More leaders are trending towards using social media that allow them to directly convey exact messages rather than using traditional media, which must go through gatekeepers such the editorial process, Mana Treelayapewat, dean of the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce’s School of Communication Arts, said.
“The beauty of social media is the two-way communication platform, a capability which leaders should utilise. Leaders should not only communicate one way but they need to engage with people [who can give feedback or opinions] to be a part to develop policy,” Mana said.