Twitter trends move with astonishing speed. One day, users may rally together in their collective appreciation of their favorite actors or retweet memes. The next, the platform can turn into a war of flamethrowers, with hashtags exposing sexual harassment in universities or calling out public figures for whatever offenses they’ve committed.
Over the past year, once-untouchable Thai celebrities, mega-brands, and members of Parliament alike have begun to fall from grace on social media—all brought down by raging torrents of angry tweets and hashtags.
Cancel culture has arrived in Thailand, and the pitchfork crowds are growing bolder by the day. But will it yield sustainable change? And do the ends justify the means anyway?
We talked to activists and academics about the merits and dangers of the movement.
How it started
Since last year, several pressure campaigns against corporations, media giants, and celebrities who have supported past coups or—worse for many netizens—the current establishment have spawned online. Business groups like Minor International, for example, were targeted as part of the “boycott the Nation” campaign, and the infamous “No Salim Shopping List” took aim at corporations that fund the regime or hold pro-monarchy stances. (Now, there’s even a “No Salim Restaurant List,” calling out restaurants run by pro-establishment figures.)
Many who have tried to distance themselves from the scorching political tension, like celebrities Kanticha “Ticha” Chumma and Praya “Pu” Lundberg, have received backlash for their silence.
But cancel culture doesn’t exist only in Thailand’s virtual world.
In 2020, TV host MC Ornapha “Ma” Krisadee was fired by Polyplus Entertainment after making inappropriate comments about student activists. (They should not protest, she said, “but stay home and spread their vaginas.”) And Thai film director Poj Arnon was pressured to resign from his role as an emcee for verbally offensive comments he made about the poor.
Driven by anger and frustration—if not fear of a future in which the majority of our basic freedoms have completely disappeared—many Thai citizens seem to be acting with urgency, hoping to change mindsets or repave the political landscape that has given rise to these structural problems.
A tool for the everyman
“Even if we don’t succeed in overhauling the system, cancel culture is the only tool ordinary people have to strike back,” says Rukchanok “Ice” Srinok, a 27-year-old online merchant turned social activist. “The individual voice may not be loud enough, but as a collective force, we can amplify our impact, even if we don’t have the same social privileges as [the rich and powerful].”
In response to critics who say that cancel culture has gone too far, Rukchanok counters that the opposite is more likely to be true. “People like us only have the power to raise our voices as one. We can’t do much damage to mega-businesses by canceling them or boycotting their products. But when they target us and weaponize their resources and connections, we become easy prey for them,” she explains.
Like many pro-democracy activists, Rukchanok has been charged with criminal offenses for her political activism. Still, she remains hopeful that it will have an effect on Thai culture, even if it doesn’t yield immediate changes.
“Although it’s unlikely influential celebrities will change their views, heated debate and discussions give ordinary people a chance to reflect on themselves and recognize the problems in their own way of thinking,” she says.
“The individual voice may not be loud enough, but as a collective force, we can amplify our impact, even if we don’t have the same social privileges as [the rich and powerful].”
She speaks from experience. Before she became a defender of democratic norms, Rukchanok admits she didn’t always value basic rights. After netizens unearthed a moment from her past, when she told now-political exile Aum Neko to “get out of the country and live with Thaksin,” she was canceled herself—something she tells BK she deserved and has tried to atone for. “It made me reflect on my own behavior. Still, I think it was fair game, since I’ve canceled other people, too.“
Turning popularity into power
“What I like the most about this movement is that, even if you are famous or a university lecturer, if you make mistakes, you have to be responsible for them,” says Kengkij Kitirianglarp, an anthropology lecturer from Chiang Mai University, who has a notorious reputation on Twitter.
Noticing how popular Twitter had become among the young and politically motivated in Thailand, the 41-year-old university lecturer spent his spare time learning how to use the platform to engage with them. Since creating an account in December 2020, Kengkij has built a nearly 10 thousand-strong following.
“You may be surprised how fast people can forget."
In his bio, he proudly announces what he feels social platforms should be used for: “Twitter is for chord (calling things out) not for academic debate.”
“This is no different from how villagers would sanction a monk if they found out he was having a sex affair in a temple,” he says, adding that he doesn’t view cancel culture as a new social phenomenon.
Like Rukchanok, Kengkij isn’t sure the movement will yield long-lasting changes or even have a great impact on society. He cites the way Twitter users bounce from trend to trend, the 30-car-pile-up of hashtags that occurs each day, as a roadblock to more focused efforts.
“You may be surprised how fast people can forget,” he says. “I don’t think there’s enough emotional investment to push for real-world social changes.”
But even if Twitter may cater to our shortened attention spans, as we hop from one drama to the next, Kengkij gives it credit for the way it has expanded awareness of social issues.
“Before social media existed, you would only really learn about issues like gender or racial discrimination when you went to university. Now, these conversations are happening online, and people from a very young age—like primary or high school students—are taking part in them,” he explains.
He also credits social media for creating celebrities outside of the usual upper-class circles. When he joined Facebook in 2007, academics like him weren’t household names, he says. “People don’t even have to know who you are. You can remain anonymous while gaining up to 10k followers. Anyone can gain that kind of influence online.”
But having a large number of followers doesn’t necessarily equate to real power outside of social media. “Thai society is filled with many layers of hierarchy. The current legal system does not protect our freedom of expression as it should,” says Kengkij. “People are facing very real lawsuits, whether it’s defamation or lèse-majesté, from things they said online.”
Arguably the most canceled person online is Dawud, who declined to provide his full name for security reasons. Just a quick search through trends periodically reveals hashtags like #Dawudthesocialthreat.
“I’ve been blocked by almost 3,000 people on Twitter,” Dawud tells BK.
The reason for the hatred? While most conceal the identities of the people they attack on Twitter, Dawud has exposed their faces without their consent. He adds that before people can engage with someone online, they need to at least know the background of the person they’re debating.
“It is all about accountability,” he explains.
Many might recall Thailand’s infamous run-in with the Twitter police last year.
In October, Twitter unearthed and took down almost 1,000 accounts that were allegedly part of a state-run information operation (IO). These accounts used fake profile pictures, dogpiled on tweets that criticized the government, and pushed hashtags to sway public opinion.
According to Dawud, that justifies all efforts to ensure total transparency. Without it, he believes Thai cancel culture will be inherently flawed and potentially dangerous.
He points to the speed with which posts, rumors, and calls to action move in the online world. Sometimes those rumors couldn’t be further from the truth, and that can have a ripple effect that goes beyond the digital realm if we’re not careful.
“One time people on Twitter said I was a police spy,” he recalls, describing how his account was bombarded with rage-tweets when netizens believed he was involved in the politically motivated arrest of a pro-democracy activist. “Eventually, the truth came out [that I wasn’t a spy for the police], but no one really apologized to me.”
Despite his run-in with cancel culture gone wrong, Dawud still pledges support for the movement, as long as we cancel for the right reasons. “It’s okay to be frustrated and angry,” he declares, “but don’t stray from the truth.”
Prices to pay
Some have spoken out in defense of the freshly canceled. Kachapa “Mod Dum” Toncharoen, for instance, made a public plea in his television program for everyone to understand that celebrities must pay a price for throwing support behind social causes.
Sakkarat “Pupe” Piamworanan, an online beauty blogger with over 130k followers, understands this as well as anyone. That doesn’t mean he agrees with celebrities staying silent.
Among beauty bloggers in Thailand, Pupe is a pioneer. The skincare guru created his Facebook page PupeSoSweet in 2010, but he has never limited himself to cosmetics. He often engages in online debates about social issues and shuts pro-government supporters down with aplomb.
As an online influencer who is extremely vocal about politics, Pupe is aware of the political and financial risks he bears. He has experienced them firsthand, having lost sponsorships for his views in the past. With Thailand’s entertainment industry in the vice-grip of oligopolies, however, most traditional public figures who rely on sponsorships to make money and retain their status typically choose security over speaking out.
He says he understands that losing sponsorships may be a big sacrifice for many, but ultimately influencers and celebrities might pay a greater price by tacitly aligning with Thailand’s establishment.
“It’s your choice to remain silent,” Pupe explains. “But that means it’s the public’s choice to pull back the support they once gave you if you do remain silent.”
Who got canceled in 2020-2021
We’ve gathered the biggest cancelations from the past year. What did you miss?
UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Praya Lundberg drew ire after refusing to comment on the forced disappearance of activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit
Online life coach Sean Buranahiran fell from grace for his Chiang Mai wildfire fundraising scandal
Netizens call for a boycott sponsors of Nation Multimedia Group, publishers of The Nation
Sri Panwa hotel owner Vorasit “Wan” Issara was called out for smack-talking about pro-democracy activists
The hashtag #whatshappeninginThailand is first used to cancel Thai police and expose their brutality toward protesters
Model Kanticha “Ticha” Chumma received backlash for remaining politically neutral as pro-democracy protests continued
MP Bencha Saengchantra called out IconSiam for its New Year’s Eve countdown fireworks, as tight pandemic restrictions forced other events to be canceled
Actor Techin “DJ Matoom” Ploypetch was socially sanctioned for breaking the Emergency Decree’s ban on gatherings and seeding a party-based Covid cluster
TV hostess Patcharasri “Kalamare” Benjamas was dogpiled for promoting a “miracle” powershot drink that she claimed could cure Covid-19 and many other diseases
After publishing a post that coincidentally sounded like it was ridiculing the arrests of pro-democracy activists, Potato Corner’s social page was bombarded by digital mobs
Boyy’s new bag campaign triggered online outcry for exploiting Thailand’s poverty to promote an expensive accesory
After she publicly endorsed the Sinovac vaccine, Araya A. “Chompoo” Hargate was targeted by skeptics who claimed her support was bought by the regime
At the end of June, the Tourism Authority of Thailand was railed for posting a video promoting the Phuket “reopening” as Covid-19 cases continued to climb; the video was taken down the next day
Online Influencer Thanida “Pimtha” Manalertruengkil and actor Thiti “Bank” Mahayotaruk were met with angry comments for contributing to a new Covid-19 cluster in Chiang Mai