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Nobuto Yamamoto, Professor, Faculty of Law, Department of Political Science
Director, Institute for Media and Communications Research

Social Media and Southeast Asian Politics

The development of new media that enables individuals to share information widely and swiftly has changed the way public opinions are formed. It used to be that public opinions were left to the dictate of monopolistic release of information by the mass media. We asked Professor Yamamoto, who specializes in Southeast Asian politics, about the “quiet transformation” that develops via social media.

Prof. Nobuto Yamamoto

During the first half of 2011, the world’s eyes were glued to the Arab Spring. We witnessed the power of social media (SM) in shaping the political debates. Though it does not receive as much media coverage, similar quiet transformation is underway in Southeast Asia with regard to the influence of SM. It has become new a conduit for public participation in politics and social movements of the 21st century.

From the standpoint of SM, political space in Southeast Asia has two aspects. In domestic politics, by creating ties with political parties, SM acts as a driving force to bring change to politics. On the one hand, in countries like Malaysia and Singapore where authoritarian political systems are practiced, SM has empowered opposition parties to make significant strides in the general election. The main reason for this is the fact that in the SM space, there is more room to make political statements freely. On the other hand, in countries that are more democratized such as Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines, SM has assumed a leading role of media strategies in elections.

In the context of diplomacy, SM operates in the form of online public opinion and sometimes accelerates exclusive nationalism. The Thai-Cambodian border dispute in 2011 is a good example. It induced the intermittent clashes and deadlock of diplomatic negotiations over the ownership of the Hindu Preah Vihear temple. The reason lay in the fact that domestic politics affected the dispute, because the governments simply could not ignore online public opinion.

In sum, in domestic politics SM is connected with citizens who act as a drive for political change, while in foreign affairs it positions them to take a leading role of inward-looking nationalism. In the former case, SM is described as united with the young generation, and in the latter case, it acts as the voice of citizens of all ages. It is therefore not easy to evaluate SM’s influence in politics, and it is also difficult to quantify how SM as an information tool has changed politics.

Even having confirmed these points, I consider that we should take SM seriously in monitoring domestic politics. Above all, in Southeast Asian countries, party politics, parliamentary politics and elections are still very consequential, irrespective of their level of democracy. Because of this fact, we need to keep our eyes on SM as a political tool.

*This article appeared in the 2012 spring edition (No.274) of “Juku.”
*Position titles, etc., are those at the time of publishing.