It's election time in Thailand, which sees the country's media sharpen its focus on politics, parties and prime ministerial candidates. The growth in use of social media across the country has seen politicians increasingly giving platforms like Twitter and Facebook significant focus among their communications, particularly during the election.
While neither the platform nor even Internet itself can reach a majority of those living in Thailand--where Internet penetration is 26.3 percent, according to the ITU--social media is an important platform for free expression (with media interpretation) which reaches millions, many of whom are leading influencers and journalists who frequently uncover story leads through social networks.
Thailand's Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who is also leader of Thailand's Democrat party, is a well-documented user of social media. So much so that last year, his @PM_Abhisit account ranked 9th in a list of the Top 10 world leaders using Twitter (at that time, he had 137,000 followers) while he has long made use of Facebook, a smart move given that the social network boasts close to 9 million users across the country.
However, during the election period Abhisit has opted to leave his Prime Ministerial Twitter account and its 198,000-plus followers instead using a new account @Abhisit_DP with a far more modest audience of 8,081. That's a loss of around 190,000 followers.
So why did Thailand's Prime Minister decide to start from scratch during an election campaign, a critical time for communications?
A reasonable argument has been made that the Prime Minister wanted to avoid using his Prime Ministerial influence during the election and therefore, with his Twitter account having been started and grown in popularity during his time in office, he created a new one which makes no reference to his position as PM, instead using "DP" an abbreviation of Democrat Party.
This throws up an interesting question of whether a Twitter account is personal or reflective (and if so to what degree) of a position or job. Many Twitter users, particularly in the media, append their usernames with an abbreviation of their company, which always makes me wonder what happens if/when they move on and have to change their username.
In the U.K., for example, @Number10gov (a reference to the Prime Minister's official residence at 10 Downing Street) is a Twitter account for the Prime Minister which changes hands with the office. A similar strategy is used in the U.S. with The White House having its own account--@TheWhiteHouse--although current incumbent Barack Obama has his own Twitter account, @BarackObama, which is one of the world's most popular with more than 8.1 million followers compared to The White House's 2.1 million.
Perhaps it is time for the Thai government to do the same thing for its Prime Ministerial office. Although, Thailand being Thailand, it could make things interesting should there to be (another) government coup.
A recent interview with senior Democract MP Apirak Kosayothin at The Nation suggested that, contrary to the opinion that Abhisit had created his new account to avoid breaking rules, the new @Abhisit_DP account was created so that the Prime Minister could be more hands on with his followers.
When asked if there had been any problems using social media in the election, Apirak--who is himself on Twitter--responded: "One of the issues is that people expect responses to every query. For example, our party leader has over 600,000 online followers so he cannot personally reply to every question. He is just too busy. Some had complained that they didn't want the PM's assistants to respond on his behalf. Hence, the party leader now has a new account, @Abhisit_DP [through which he will respond personally]."
I'm sceptical as to how a new account can help Abhisit respond and equally whether too many incoming questions is a bad thing. How either justify turning the tap on one of the world's most followed social media accounts is curious, also then why does the Prime Minister continue with his Facebook Page and its 625,000 plus fans?
Of course, Abhisit could have just changed the way he handles responses on Twitter, perhaps recruiting more staff to help handle incoming responses or dedicating time (on the move?) to cover them and changing his Twitter account (by name) to reflect that he is now no longer Prime Minister and he'd have kept his formidable following.
Now he has Pheu Thai Prime Ministerial Candidate Yingluck Shinawatra closing down on his Twitter account, which could make things embarrassing if his challenger gains greater popularity. Yingluck opened her account--@pouyingluck--only on Thursday and already she has 6,000 followers, while Abhisit is more than a fortnight old.
Although early days, Yingluck has balanced informative tweets with responses to incoming questions and occasional tweets in English. No doubt she has less traffic than her rival Abhisit at this stage, so it will be interesting to observe whether she can keep it up as the election and her popularity both progress.
There is no doubt that Abhisit has the bigger audience on social media, with Yingluck's Facebook page attracting 13,500 plus fans, but it would surely be an embarrassment for the Prime Minister to be "out-followed" on Twitter.
Ultimately, better planning and clearly communication would have helped Abhisit's team set up his non-PM Twitter account, bearing in mind that he is keen to avoid any potential criticism of using his PM privileges. Now that there is a newer, lesser known rival on the scene, many may be less interested in following a man who has been in charge for more than two years and had little influence on his social media.
Of course, Abhisit is likely to revert back to posting to his old account if he wins the election...but at this stage the election remains too close to call.