King Bhumibol and Social Media

While this post has to do with politics the day after one of the most monumental elections in US history, it is not about the United States. It is meant to highlight the use of social media in a foreign country and how it reacts to local customs and laws.

Background

As some may know, the King of Thailand, King Bhumibol, died October 13th ending his 70-year reign in the country. You may be thinking, “monarchs pass away all the time, why is this blog worth reading”? Or even, “why is this blog relevant to social media”? Not only did the King have some hometown ties from being born in Cambridge, Ma, he also had a significant impact on the country and was generally loved by all. He was the world’s longest serving monarch at the time of this death. Due to the overwhelming respect he had, the King was able to be very influential on local politics. Given his long term, this came in handy since he lived through more than a dozen coups, more than 20 prime ministers, and 20 constitutions. Despite the constant change in power, he was a consistent and calming force for the nation. Many people found out about the King’s passing via social media platforms and leveraged them as a way to show love and respect.

Lèse-majesté

Thailand has a set of laws referred to as “lèse-majesté”. These laws make it illegal to defame, insult, or threaten the royal family. Unfortunately there is no legal definition to help narrow the scope on these acts, therefore it is very open ended about what can be considered an offense. For example, according to Wikipedia, in 2015 a man was sentenced for a comment made on social media about the King’s dog. Really puts Alec Baldwin’s Trump impersonation into a new light. Breaking the law can result in 3-15 years in prison, as a result, little was released about the King’s health leading up to his death. What is concerning about the laws are their far reaching effect. They basically make it impossible for people to debate the future of the monarchy in the country and whether or not the heirs are fit to rule. I don’t necessarily disagree with the reverence shown to the monarchy but I get nervous when free speech is limited and what it could mean if someone less deserving is given such power. In Thailand, there are people on both sides of the debate.

Mourning Period

The government set the morning period at one year with media restrictions in the first 30 days. Many online news outlets and Thailand social media pages turned black and white in remembrance and respect for the king. Some examples include Google, Apple, and the Bangkok Post. This mourning and show of respect went past companies and platforms and extended to users. Many people changed their profiles to black and white hues to reflect mourning. One article mentions that some users were publically attacked if they did not show respect and change their profiles to black and white as well. Although the love for the King is mostly genuine throughout the country, the forced mourning starts to cast a concern for future monarchs that may not drum up the same respect.

Facebook took a big step towards supporting the Thai morning period. They halted all ads the day after the King’s death. This goes above and beyond restricting offensive posts and actually results in a loss of revenue for Facebook. It was nice to see that they respect the Thai people enough to go out of their way to respect their mourning requests.

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Social Media Shaming

Some took the respect and remembrance too far. Due to the overwhelming support of the King and the lèse-majesté, some people believed that significant punishment was in order for anything that could be perceived as non-respectful. According to an article on theguardian, “Thai people should “socially sanction” those who defame the monarchy following King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s death, the justice minister has said”. The justice went on to say “There is no better way to punish these people than to socially sanction them,”. Who has ever heard of a government calling for cyber bullying?! This resulted in abusive videos being uploaded to the internet showing simple shaming to gang violence.

Closing Thoughts

There are two ways to view this story. From a positive perspective, global social media outlets and other companies are adapting to cultural norms and showing respect for other ways of life. On the other hand, it seems as if freedom of speech is being oppressed and social media is being used as a tool for political persecution and bullying. I think we are now living in a global age where country boarders are fading away. Cultural awareness and sensitivity is crucial but so are the simple rights we take for granted in the United States. One thing we do have in common with Thailand is uncertainty about the future. Can future leaders act as a calming force and bring unity across a nation? With great power comes great responsibility…

6 comments

  1. Great, interesting post. Thanks for the detail!

  2. vicmoriartybc · ·

    First of all, thanks for making a political post that has nothing to do with the never-ending U.S. Presidential Election. Second of all, this post really made me reflect on the current state of our country. Although about half of the nation (myself included) may feel disillusioned by Trump’s win in the U.S., reading this post reminds me of how lucky we are to live in a country where we can voice our opinions on political leaders without facing legal action. However, I am worried by the concept of “social sanctioning,” especially given how active our president-elect has been on Twitter. Is the American government someday going to advocate for cyberbullying, like the Thai government has? I sure hope not. This is a really eye-opening post. Great job!

  3. Great post! It is encouraging to see these companies going out of their way to respect other cultures, though I can’t help but find myself conflicted between whether it was more an act of solidarity or an attempt at good publicity. Beyond that, it is interesting to see such explicit persecution of free speech and calls for violence. It brings back memories of a friend describing the US as a nation that uniquely values free speech, even relative to most of the developed world. In that vein, I wonder where else political silencing along those lines could be commonplace and whose job it is to advocate for some sort of change.

  4. dabettervetter · ·

    Wow reading about the laws, I am so grateful for our freedom of speech! Even though I may not agree or understand with a lot of what I see on my social media, read in news sources, or hear in passing – I am thankful that we are allowed to express our opinions without facing punishment. I really respect Facebook for taking the care to respect Thailand’s mourning on their platform as a whole. Sometimes it is hard for large companies to reflect an opinion without alienating people, but I see that decision as very sound. I definitely do not think cyber bullying is the answer to any issue and I wish we could engage in the same kind of discourse we often do on the internet, face to face. Great post overall! I appreciate hearing about someone else’s politics :)

  5. skuchma215 · ·

    I had no idea Thailand has such restrictive laws on free speech. When I read about the King’s death a month ago, it seems like a sad story from a country who loved their monarchy quite a lot. But now it seems like a lot of this love is artificial, as no opposition to the King was ever allowed to be voiced. I hope Thailand is eventually able to reform its free speech laws. It doesn’t seem likely, but maybe the monarch that comes to power will be a progressive that reforms the free speech laws.

  6. Really informative post, and I’m glad you covered social media & politics outside of the US. It really makes me feel grateful that America has such a strong free-speech law whenever I hear about oppressed voices and punishments for speaking out in other countries. I am concerned about what the president-elect might do on this front. He’s known for cyberbullying and threats on Twitter, and has banned many media sources from attending rallies and events during his campaign. Obviously, he can’t restrict free speech. But his attitude alone can make a huge impact, and has already been galvanizing people on social media, allowing them act out in the worst possible ways, shaming and insulting those who don’t share the same views. Social media is already nasty, but could it get even worse in the coming years considering our current situation?

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