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Social and online media for social change: examples from Thailand

Anne Elicaño's picture
Also available in: ภาษาไทย


In Bangkok, a campaign to save land from being turned into another mega mall
brings people together online--and offline. Photo credit: Makkasan Hope

As a web editor and as a digital media enthusiast I’ve seen all sorts of content online: a close-up photo of someone’s lunch, a video of singing cats, selfies (for the blissfully uninitiated- these are self-portraits taken from mobile devices), and more.

Can such content change the world for the better? What if these were more substantial or inspiring, would it spur change more effectively? While messaging is important, I think the real power of social and online media is in its convening power.  The changing the world for the better bit happens when the communities formed by social media take things offline and act.

Recently, in Bangkok, I took part in #WBSync.Lab, an (offline) gathering of people who are working for, volunteering with, or interested in organizations which added digital/online layers to social advocacies. To give you a background, Thailand has 25 million online users and 18 million social media users. There’s plenty of potential for online-driven campaigns and online communities to thrive.

Here are some of the successful home-grown initiatives we discussed that evening:

WhereisThailand.info, a group that visualizes data comparing Thailand to other countries, made an infographic out of a World Bank report about the public expenditure of provinces in Thailand.  By transforming several pages into one powerful visual and rendering it in the Thai language, they were able to generate a vibrant online discussion with hundreds of comments. The infographic was shared a whopping 2,237 times. You can find out about more World Bank social and online initiatives in this presentation by my colleague, Jim Rosenberg.

Tul Pinkaew is the campaigns director of www.change.org/Thailand, which is the Thailand chapter of the global online campaign platform Change.org.  He told us about the Manhole campaign, where cycling enthusiast Nonlanee Ungwiwatkul launched a campaign asking the Bangkok City Hall (BMA) to fix or replace damaged steel grating pothole covers that are dangerous to cyclists and pedestrians alike. Nonlanee decided to start an online petition and, within a week, more than 1,500 people joined her campaign. Bangkok Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra officially launched a statement soon after in response to the petition, promising to fix all the steel gratings throughout Bangkok.

Another great initiative was the Greenspace campaign. Web/graphic designers Jatuporn and Poolap wanted to save 200 acres of land in central Bangkok from becoming another mega mall complex. They think that the land could be better used as a green space for everyone to enjoy. They were able to collect 23,000 signatures in an online petition and organize an awareness-raising concert with thousands attending. The city government then committed to reviewing the situation.

I asked Tul about the success rate of these online campaigns. There are about half a million petitions created but only a few thousands achieve victories.

The campaigns that achieve great impact and are able to mobilize passionate new supporters are the ones that are able to communicate the problem from a personal narrative. These have a strong direct call to action,” he said, “Each campaign comes from the grassroots up, reflecting what the average person wants to see improved. This results in a greater response and participation by the public and greater media attention, making it hard for decision-makers to ignore,”

Another netizen pointed out that such online campaigns catered to urban dwellers only. This may be true, for now, but we should also consider that mobile phones and internet rates are increasingly getting cheaper, thus widening the space for people to join in the conversation. For instance, mobile phones are already being used by farmers in the Philippines for getting advice on rice. 

What can be done for those who are excluded from social/online media because of lack of access? I think we should recognize that social media isn’t a magic bullet. It’s just one among the range of communication tools at our disposal.  There are radio programs that will reach far-flung rural communities better or town hall meetings for certain groups that cannot be replicated in any online platform.

What are the social or online media for social change initiatives that you have participated in? What kind of online campaigns for advocacies are successful in your part of the world?  

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