It’s been a busy start to the semester here at Cal and time has not been something with which I have been well-endowed. But I do want to comment on the latest uproar in Thai politics over Prayut’s remarks at Asia Society in New York.
The prime minister began with a riff about social media:
Thais need to learn to live with digital technology and social media, with both the opportunities and threats they offer. It can cause people to hate each other or to love each other, which I consider as highly dangerous. I don’t know who created it, but it is useful — as online services, as e-commerce, as repositories of knowledge.
But then he made these bizarre remarks about Google:
We are executives, and most of us use Google. However, citizens tend not to use it. That’s the problem, because that means they’re not learning. Learning using mobile phones and technology is useful. People only like to read about sensationalist issues. For example, if a dog bit a person, it wouldn’t be reported. But if a human bit a dog, then it’d be on the news. This is a problem we have to solve.
There has been much subsequent derision, and some focus on the condescending tone that the premier used when referring to his own people. I have a couple of other serious takeaways.
First, Prayut doesn’t understand Thailand’s digital economy, which is dangerous given the rate of digital disruption. Contrary to the prime minister’s beliefs, Thais do indeed use Google. In fact, Google is the most visited website in Thailand. It’s true that Thais may not always be searching for topics that will prove exceptionally intellectually enriching. The top search terms in the past year, according to Google Trends, are for lottery results and football. But other popular searches include the 2019 general election, which suggests a high degree of political curiosity and engagement.
What Prayut said about not using Google is, however, more concerning than simply as a reflection of his confusion about Thailand’s favored search engine. Instead, it shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the nature of Thailand’s digital economy. Thais are already always on Google and other search websites, and we know this because Thais spend a massive amount of time on the internet.
Over the summer while at the Bangkok Post, I spent a fair bit of time researching for articles about the digital economy (here’s one) where I learned little facts such as how Thai mobile users spend an average of 4.2 hours a day on the internet compared to 2 hours spent in the US. And this number will only continue to grow as internet penetration increases. Prayut’s own government has done much to facilitate this through schemes such as Net Pracharath, which will allow those even in remote villages to gain access to the internet. Thai people are well acquainted with technology and how to learn from them, at levels comparable or surpassing both its neighbors and more developed countries.
Given the rate at which digital development has disrupted, is disrupting and will continue to disrupt the global economy, it is alarming that the prime minister seems to be unaware of the basic internet habits of the citizens on whose behalf he has been governing. Thailand cannot be exempted from this global disruption, and Prayut needs to know more about basic information on the digital landscape if he is to make effective policy.
Additionally, the remarks show that the prime minister’s priorities are completely misplaced. Lack of Google usage isn’t the problem. It’s how those who use Google and other websites, the prime minister included, interpret the information they find.
It’s great to hear that the prime minister uses Google, and by all means he should continue to do so. Google’s awesome! But while the internet serves as a treasure trove of knowledge, that is distinctly inequivalent to being a source of truth. Indeed, fake news proliferates on social media. I’ve lost track of the number of time I’ve received a LINE message purporting to be credible news, read it, sighed and replied “that’s fake news”.
Thais don’t need Prayut to tell them they need to use the internet to find information. What needs to be enhanced is public awareness about how to evaluate sources for reliability. In a knowledge economy, what can be more important than the ability to distinguish between facts and fiction? Students in schools and colleges need to be equipped with the skills necessary to be media literate.
It has been most unhelpful that Prayut’s government has not been addressing fake news in any meaningful way. Instead, the government has taken the Trumpian approach of often equating criticism and damaging information with fake news, and the ‘anti-fake news center’ that the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society has set up inspires absolutely no confidence from this writer.
Indeed, his remarks clearly show that the prime minister’s priorities are misplaced, perhaps because he himself is not media literate. Google is a route to knowledge, yes, but it must be used in coordination with critical thinking skills that the government has done nothing to help foster. Otherwise, we may indeed end up believing that humans really do bite dogs.
(Cover image credits).