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Social media: marvellous tools that could also be grossly abused

Recently, Thai Airways International started a unit to specifically deal with social media, mainly Facebook, Twitter and LINE.

The unit has been put into a good use. THAI's LINE account becomes a good marketing tool, to sell travelling packages. When the "Bangkok shutdown" began in January, it was the tool to alert passengers of the changes of scheduled flights.

Then, last week it was used to defend the company, when a rumour spread that some anti-government protesters would "shut down" THAI on Monday, February 10. The LINE message was circulated, following concerns by some passenger.

That was not surprising. My friend, a flight attendant, also raised a question on Saturday, whether the airline would operate on Monday. She also spilled a secret that many passengers cancelled their flights on the day, to avoid unexpected disturbance that could disrupt their travelling plans. That must have been the case that drove the airline to circulate explanation.

Social media, like LINE - the world's largest social network with over 300 million users worldwide including over 18 million in Thailand, can be effective in making the world smaller. On another side of a coin, it could be used against any individual or organisation.

Before we were used to virus-embedded e-mails. Rumours were dispatched through e-mails, but the reach was limited as it depended on the mailing lists the senders had. When Facebook prospers, we see millions of photos and comments being shared with friends which could be good or bad. Twitter is working the same way but faster among followers.

At a finger point, a person or organisation can become subjects of discussion without their knowledge.

Five years ago, Thai businesses saw no need to have their own Facebook pages, Twitter account or a LINE account. Now, nearly all of them have all that, to monitor any mention of the company names.

Nielsen's studies show that strangers' comments on social media and online forums are seen as credible sources for consumers, rivaling traditional "paid media". Companies are seeking to shape the public conversation about their products. Some planted fake reviews or paying bloggers.

Those social accounts however could help, in the world rich of skepticism. Whenever any wrong information is generated in the social world, they could react promptly.

Since the "Bangkok shutdown", Big C Supercentre used social media to tell clients the opening hours of its branches in Bangkok. "We don't want them to waste time, coming to the branches that may be closed earlier than usual," said a company's officer.

Companies are also seeking soft advertising through social media. They hope that their campaigns will be shared and commented on in social media, which would give a multiplier effect. Yet, not all campaigns could be that successful.

As we have seen through the past three months, social media has been actively used. From time to time, people would share a LINE message or a Twitter, saying the government planned crackdown on protesters. That was frequent particularly before the House dissolution.

In light of political deadlock, people from all parties have joined the social media world, to observe the situation and comment on the subjects interest them. I was surprised that many newly-opened accounts have followed me on the Twitter in the past weeks. Well, they didn't shy to comment on my Tweets.

On Facebook, photos and comments have been actively shared, including those not yet verified.

Since the Internet came of age, we have been aware of the pros and cons. On the positive side, the Internet gives people access to information that could be used to improve their studies, careers, businesses or social and environmental problems. World Bank recently tweeted how a slum kid makes use of an old computer. It also urged Arab governments to high-speed internet a priority to tap the potential of 100 million youth.

On the negative side, mischievous people could use the same channels to hurt others. People in the entertainment circles are the first subjects for comments, given that they are "public figures". Trailing behind are politicians. Next, it is companies which might have done something undesirable. Individuals could be slaughtered if their comments offend others.

In a way, social media is like the state of democracy in Thailand.

It has been growing real fast in the past decades, following many coups and power struggles amid the increasing level of education and income gaps in the country. While some actions are needed to ensure the prosperity of true democracy in Thailand, social media needs to be censored if the pros are to be maintained.

The recent development should raise public concerns. How far will this uncensored sharing habit go?

In the past three months, Thais have learnt about many threats. The Election Commission last week threatened to sue anybody posting comments or messages that it contributed to the government's failure to repay farmers' rice debt.

THAI should also seek police's help to investigate who spread the rumour. A strong case is needed, to prove if our computer crime law can protect individuals or organisations from false accusations or bad rumours.

Actions are needed, before trust in social media will wither away.


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