Outspoken celebs become targets as political hatred flourishes online
A bitter online row raging over social media influencer Sean Buranahiran indicates that the scars of Thailand’s political divide are as deep as ever.
A 29-year-old “life coach”, raised and educated in the United States with a strong social media following, Sean drew much criticism after describing Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan as a “lovely, sweet elder” and asking his young audience to not believe everything in the media.
“Don’t judge someone until we know them, talk to them and get to know them,” he said in a video clip recorded after he met General Prawit at a tree-planting ceremony in Chiang Mai last week.
The clip was posted on Sean’s Facebook page on June 23 – just one day before rallies were held to mark the 88th anniversary of the 1932 Siamese Revolution which ended absolute monarchy, and four days before Prawit was elected uncontested as new leader of the core coalition Palang Pracharath Party.
Sean’s remarks irked many netizens, who accused him of taking part in a promotional stunt for the scandal-hit strongman.
Following calls for a boycott, Sean’s Facebook following dropped sharply – from 4 million to 2.9 million. He also found himself immediately under scrutiny by social media users and authorities for soliciting online donations to help combat wildfires in Chiang Mai and to relieve impacts of COVID-19. Some said his reported donation total was “too low” for the one-month campaign, while others alleged that Sean spent part of the money on self-promotion.
‘Politics is a sensitive matter’
Communications experts say Sean should have known there were risks in vouching for a politician he did not know well.
“Politics is a sensitive matter – you need to be careful when it comes to political communication,” said Nantana Nantavaropas, dean of the Political Communication College at Bangkok’s Krirk University.
“This was a lesson for Sean. Public figures should have clear information about what they are saying, or they may be viewed as fake,” she added.
Sean, who has a psychology degree from a US university, is only the latest in a long list of celebrities who have fallen victim to online attacks after making political comments – or in his case, talking positively about a politician that many dislike.
Thai celebs who dare to offer public comments about politics have suffered everything from online attacks on their personality, to cyber-bullying and hate speech.
The attacks are part of a constant online argument being waged between conservatives and liberals over everything political. Conservatives mostly support the “old-guard” government of Prayut Chan-o-cha government, while liberals usually back opposition parties pushing for social and political change.
Their chosen battleground is social media, where combatants on both sides clash constantly in often bitter exchanges under fictional names and avatars. Experts say this social media war is proof that Thai society remains as politically divided as ever, six years after the May 2014 military coup that was supposed to bring reconciliation.
The online debate often gets out of hand, with arguments descending into expletives, threats and hate speech. More aggressive combatants provoke and abuse their political opponents with comments left on websites, Facebook pages and YouTube channels.
Any celebrity who pokes their head above the online political parapet is fair game. Whatever position they take, they end up angering people on one side or the other – liberal or conservative.
Celebs making political comments, either straightforward or implied, sometimes learn a hard lesson. Under the barrage of criticism that follows, they often opt to retract their opinions – fearing possible damage to their career or even a boycott of their work.
Famous victims of cyber-bullying
Famous figures who have fallen victim to online attacks after voicing their political views include singer Tata Young, actor Sunny Suwanmethanont, actress and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Praya Lundberg, actor Prama Imanotai and former Miss Thailand Mareeya Poonlertlarp (aka Maria Lynn Eriksen).
But while many celebs have chosen to withdraw their opinions to avoid criticism, others have stood firm. When netizens threatened to boycott actor Sunny after he suggested students were being manipulated into joining anti-government protests, he pointed out that he had the right to express his political views.
“This is democracy, isn’t it? If I can’t do it [make political comments], it’s not democracy, right?” he said in February.
Even illness or death doesn’t spare politically outspoken celebrities from a bitter backlash on social media.
When actor/director Pongpat Wachirabunjong suffered a stroke two years ago, online trolls reacted with comments like “it served you right”.
In 2010 Pongpat famously said: “Anyone who hates ‘Father’ should leave this house and land, as it belongs to ‘Father’. I love the King.” His remark was obviously directed at critics of the monarchy and King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
More recently, the family and friends of actor/director Sarunyoo Wongkrachang were hit by similar cruel comments following his death last month at 59 due to cancer.
Sarunyoo took an active role in 2006 street protests held by the People’s Alliance for Democracy against the government of Thaksin Shinawatra and later in 2008 against Thaksin’s proxy administration led by Samak Sundaravej. The veteran actor had previously been an executive member of Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party.
For many observers, a conflict that started over a decade ago and led to anti-government protests, riots, arson attacks, armed clashes and deadly crackdowns has now spilled onto a new battlefield. Although subdued during military rule following the 2014 coup, the political war has simmered online and is heating up again in this age of social media.
By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk