The unrest in Thailand this week revealed how politically naive people (like myself) can be hoodwinked on Twitter. The great unwashed (myself included) take many things on face value – so we tend towards believing a first-hand account from a major news event. In Bangkok, the “redshirts” were creating havoc on the streets, burning buses, hijacking gas tankers, great throngs of them facing off the army. Twitter, still nascent in many respects, produced a constant stream of first-hand accounts, or so I thought. We began following these accounts at the Geelong Advertiser (@geelongaddy) and made contact with an American copy editor from the Oregonian for a news report. Yep. He was who he said he was. We checked him out. But then, as the protests continued, allegations of “yellowshirt fascists” were levelled at some of the other Tweeters. All was not as it seemed.
While the “redshirts” were protesting on the streets, the “yellowshirts” dominated the Twitter accounts – and so influenced media organisations everywhere with their pointed view of the conflict. At least one British TV newsroom spent considerable hours trying to organise live reports from these political activitists without knowing their political agenda. One Tweeter @andrewspooner made a point of revealing the yellowshirts at regular intervals.
“Warning to fellow tweeters -several PAD (described by Asian Human Rights Commission as fascist) activists tweeting here,” said Spooner. And;
- “Let’s be fair – how many poor #redshirt Thais use twitter? most don’t even own PC or have ever used internet.
- “PAD now mobilising on twitter -be warned that most Thais posting here are quoting only pro-govt PAD sources – trust BBC/CNN more.
- “Thai twitter community is not representative of Thai population – foreign tweeters need to be aware of that
- “A point for int tweeters-most thais wealthy enough to write english & own pc will be yellowshirt supporters – #redshirt are generally poor.”
The accused “yellowshirts” did not hide, but staunchly defended their political affiliation - and so the live news coverage became a tit-for-tat Twitter slanging match in virtual reality while real people died on the streets of Bangkok.
Also revealed* – some of the live reports translating Thai TV bulletins emanated from Bali and another Tweeter, @BangkokBill, claimed on his blog to be ex-U.S. Army in the 4th PSYOP group! He says he is now a manager at an English school in Thailand and has spent 3 years in the country. He was in the thick of the action, uploading hundreds of pictures to flickr.
Increasingly, the traditional media is being challenged to report news instantly, because the new media audience of bloggers and tweeters is flooding RSS feeds and mobile phones with immediate, first-hand accounts. But, as we have seen in this one, recent, major news event, that same audience is not what it seems at first blush. There is a clear and present danger that public perception can and will be easily manipulated by agent provocateurs and activitists in the absence of more rigorous verification of the facts.
Updated: Further discussion on this post:
That Twitter could be used for disinformation is not surprising. Just like any open network that anyone could join, it’s open for manipulation by anyone with an agenda. I don’t believe that social media inherently benefits the “good guys” over the “bad guys” – in most cases, the good guys just also happen to be rather progressive and forward-looking on a whole set of issues, technology included, so they are naturally more skillful at using the Internet. More
* Bangkok Bill has responded on his blog to this post and makes the following point.
Now maybe I am reading too much into this paragraph (please respond if I am Peter) but it seems that it is being implied that I am a Yellowshirt. If this is so I am a bit confused how being an ex-member of the 4th Psyop group and a manager at an English school makes one a Yellowshirt but I would love to hear the answer.
Now just to set the record straight. I don’t believe I am a Redshirt or a Yellowshirt. I honestly find the whole Thai political mess to be incredibly hard to decipher to the level where I can pick a clear “good guy” and “bad guy” in the current situation. Based on my experiences and knowledge I would say that both sides have good and bad parts to them – as to which side is better than the other I have no idea.