Tuesday, July 23, 2024
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In Thailand’s general election in May, the Move Forward Party (MFP) emerged as the big winner with 151 seats thanks in large part to social media. While all major political parties were actively campaigning online, the MFP’s influence far outstripped their opponents. The key to the MFP’s online success was its fan base, who came together, largely organically, to promote and support the party.

As one of the world’s most social media active countries, social media platforms were key battlegrounds for Thailand’s 14 May general election. With more than 80 per cent of the population now on social media, online campaigning was no longer optional.

The most popular hashtag used in the lead-up to the election day, across Facebook, Twitter and TikTok was #election23, and the MFP dominated online conversations relating to the election and its content was engaged with the most. Compared to other parties, Thai people talked, shared and interacted with the MFP online the most. This made MFP content most visible to social media users as platform algorithms prioritise the most popular content.

On Facebook, 56 per cent of the most popular posts using the hashtag #election23 were about the MFP. These posts garnered more than 10 million interactions (such as liking and sharing) with more than 80 per cent eliciting positive sentiment. Pheu Thai came second with 15 per cent of the posts using #election23 being about the party. Pheu Thai posts produced 1.6 million interactions — more than six times fewer than the MFP.

Pita Limjaroenrat, leader of the MFP, was much more influential and popular compared to his opponents. But Pita began his campaign with nearly 40 per cent fewer followers and likes than Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. Yet after 60 days, Pita’s Facebook support base grew by more than 200 per cent and his posts attracted nearly 300 per cent more than the posts of all the other party leaders combined. Each of Pita’s posts garnered 59,000 interactions— 99 per cent of these were positive.

These rates of engagement are crucial to online campaigning success — algorithms prioritise content that is highly engaged with. The MFP’s Facebook campaign was a clear winner. On Twitter, the hashtags #Pita and #MoveForward2ballots were the most strongly related hashtags to #election23, suggesting that MFP supporters also dominated Twitter activities relating to the election.

This form of hashtag activism drove the Twitter success of the MFP’s predecessor party — the Future Forward Party — and became the main mobilisation tool for the youth-led protest movements that began in 2020. Other parties were actively tweeting too, particularly Pheu Thai and United Thai Nation supporters, but their Twitter networks did not dominate as the MFP did.

TikTok — Thailand’s fastest-growing social media platform — emerged as the newest campaigning platform for major political parties. In terms of TikTok popularity, the MFP won in a landslide. Top accounts, hashtags and keywords associated with ‘election23’ were all about the MFP and Pita. While Pita’s official TikTok account had 14.7 million likes, his hashtags garnered more than 10 billion views. Content relating to Pheu Thai and its leaders, the second most popular party on TikTok, had 20 times fewer views.

But does social media popularity matter for election results? Existing research suggests that parties that have strong organic grassroots online support tend to do well on the ballots. Organic support — driven by brand discovery, identification and loyalty — tends to drive engagement, which is crucial to content popularity.

Most of the MFP’s top content on Facebook, Twitter and TikTok was not produced by the party or its candidates. Instead, it was produced and shared by networks of micro-influencers, large numbers of fans and established media organisations such as Thairath and Matichon. The same pattern is not observed for other parties, which suggests that the MFP has significant competitive leverage online: it has the strongest and most active online support base.

But how did the MFP grow such a big and committed fan base so fast with a small campaigning budget? Part of the party’s success was its clear branding — the MFP stood for structural change, which included reforming the monarchy and the military. Voters understood what the MFP stood for and could identify with it.

Other parties’ branding, on the other hand, remained relatively unclear. It is a good thing that Thai voters care for party identity and programming because it suggests that they are becoming more interested in policies.

But there is no denying that ‘Pita fever’ was in full effect too — much of the MFP’s online popularity was about Pita and his persona. This was most evident on TikTok where Pita was more popular than the MFP itself. Thai voters, while becoming more interested in policies and party stances, still care deeply about personalities.

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