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Thailand violence on May 19, 2010. (Mark MacKinnon/The Globe and Mail)
Thailand violence on May 19, 2010. (Mark MacKinnon/The Globe and Mail)

2010 archives: Twitter's role in Bangkok conflict unprecedented Add to ...

A few weeks ago, when it was safe and sane to go for dinner in the middle of Bangkok, some colleagues and I were in the middle of dinner at a Japanese restaurant when a loud boom was heard in the distance.

All of three of us reached immediately for our BlackBerries. A year ago, we might have e-mailed our editors to see what the news wires were reporting, or checked a television set for an update. But in Thailand's fast-moving and violent political crisis, there was no time to wait for those "old media" to tell us what was going on.

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Related contentMark MacKinnon in Bangkok

What we needed to know was: What were people tweeting?

The information came fast and dubious. Two explosions had been heard near the top of Silom Road financial street, where supporters of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva had been gathering at the southern end of the sprawling Red Shirt anti-government protest camp that consumed much of the centre of Bangkok.

Someone tweeted that the sounds were made by bomb blasts, which would have been a serious escalation in the violence. Others suggested they might just be fireworks, which Red Shirts regularly used to target helicopters and light up roofs of buildings where snipers might be hiding. Eventually, the number of tweets about people injured on Silom Road became a body of evidence too large to ignore. We abandoned our sushi and headed to the scene.

Never before has a social media website played the kind of role in a conflict that Twitter has played in Thailand's nine-week-old anti-government uprising, keeping people informed even as it amplified the hate on both sides of the country's divide. Some say Twitter - or rather its users - may have even saved lives as fighting consumed the streets of Bangkok.

More clearly, it was used by propagandists on both sides to get their message out, and by ordinary Thais to express their frustrations at the situation and to warn each other about which areas of Bangkok to avoid as the city descended into urban warfare. With many websites censored and Thailand's traditional media deeply divided into pro- and anti-government camps, it arguably became the only forum where you could get a clear picture of what was really going on.

"Twitter is the only place where we can say things freely," said Poomjit Sirawongprasert, an Internet freedom activist who sometimes updates her Twitter feed a dozen times an hour and became one of the go-to sources for information about what was happening in whatever neighbourhood of Bangkok she happened to be in. "The propaganda is not good, but because of the speed, people can check and cross-check. If you put something out there that's untrue, within 30 minutes the truth will come out because people will show evidence, photos and videos."

While Twitter was used by the opposition in Iran to organize rallies following last year's hotly disputed election, it was, for the most part, a one-sided affair with millions of tweets supporting opposition leader Mir Hossein Moussavi's claim to have won the vote, and few backing the legitimacy of President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. Social media was clearly not a field that the mullahs of Tehran understood or felt comfortable playing on.

In Thailand, Red Shirts hoping to bring down the government fought a tweet-for-tweet information war with backers of Mr. Abhisit's government. Twitter also hosted front-line reports from veteran war correspondents, first-time freelancers and ordinary citizens caught in the crossfire. Some were enthralling; others were invention.

On at least two occasions - one of them when I was trapped inside the supposed sanctuary of the Wat Pathum temple along with more than 3,000 civilians as it came under fire - the social networking site may have played a role in saving lives.

With my colleague Andrew Buncombe unable to move after being shot Wednesday night inside the temple - and other injured people dying around us from lack of medical care - I first telephoned embassies, hospitals and the International Committee for the Red Cross. Then I put out an all-call on Twitter, hoping my "followers" in Bangkok would use their own contacts to help us.

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