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Tweets shape national debate

Platform allows more diverse discussion than conventional media, but can also be abused, experts say

Twitter is fast becoming a key conduit for political debate with more people finding it liberating as they can engage in real-time dialogues with politicians and prominent tweeters. Experts see both positive and negative sides in that trend but all agree that the medium is here to stay and will likely shape politics in the future in terms of speed and accessibility, as more Thais join the 720,000 or so subscribers in the country.

Mana Treelayape, deputy dean of mass communications at the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce, said recently that political views on Twitter are more diverse than on most traditional media and people have a chance to debate with politicians and others who hold opposing views in real time.

What's more, the anonymity of many tweeters, especially the younger generation who are more social media savvy, also ensures that they can speak their minds freely without fear of those in power.

"Twitter doesn't require that you use your real name. So there will be people who express extreme views and make [groundless] accusations. But there are also those who express differing opinions that would otherwise not be made in a public forum."

Orapak Suwanapakdee, a technology adviser to the president of the university, said people who use Twitter have access to candid views and information from politicians. That puts people who do not use it at a disadvantage, she said. Also, many of these views are not really available on traditional mainstream media. People's eyes and ears "used to be shut" by the self-censorship of mass media but now that people can say whatever they like online, clashes of views have become inevitable.

She warned tweeters from getting sucked into hate speech or following those who use abusive language for political purposes. Followers should not behave as if they are cult members of prominent tweeters. The effect of hate speech as well as irresponsible speech can be greatly "amplified" through re-tweeting (RT).

"Using [Twitter] for politics could lead to creating cult followers," she said.

Online social networks will also be exploited more in the future for election campaigning. Many who tweet extremist views are exacerbating political conflicts, she said.

Besides Twitter, on Facebook, with 14 million Thais already using it, new faces like Panthongthae Shinawatra, son of ousted and fugitive former premier Thaksin, have become a formidable force. Opinions on his Facebook page are widely monitored and he recently launched a high-profile recruitment of well wishers to visit Thaksin in Hong Kong on the ex-premier's birthday.

Sakulsri Srisaracam, a communication arts lecturer at Dhurakij Pundit University and a keen observer of Twitter, said Twitter and other social-networking sites have spawned greater freedom of expression towards politics. Exchanging views has become easier as well as forming families of likeminded people. The trend has become more pronounced over the past two to three years as more Thais use Twitter and Facebook for political purposes. The downside is the risk of keeping yourself surrounded by likeminded people, or the ghettoisation of politics on the Internet.

"When people selectively accept [information], they will develop a bias and shun information that they disagree with," he said.

On the other hand, Sakulsri warned about unreliable political information circulating on Twitter. Mana agreed and said it's vital that people are literate about the pitfalls of social media sites like Twitter and Facebook.

Cheeptham Kamwisaet, an expert on social media for public relations, estimates about 50 politicians are active on Twitter, with most of them from the Democrat Party, while some 700 Thai journalists now use Twitter.

More and more will be tweeting, and politics will be "more fun", he said.


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