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Participatory Inequality in Online and Offline Political Engagement in Thailand

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Does social media reinforce or transcend socioeconomic divides in political participation? The mobilization thesis suggests that social media use can bring previously disengaged or under-represented groups into politics. The reinforcement thesis, in contrast, posits that social media has little impact on existing patterns of political participation and can, in fact, exacerbate them. I test these two hypotheses in the context of street protests in Thailand which occurred from November 2013 through March 2014. I contrast data from the Asia Foundation's socioeconomic survey of over 300 street demonstrators with unique socio-demographic profile data drawn from 600 Facebook users affiliated with either the anti-government People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) or the pro-government United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD). I find that overall, political participants on Facebook were of lower socioeconomic status and a younger demographic profile than offline participants for both sides of the political divide. These findings support the mobilization claim by demonstrating that there is less participatory inequality among online participants. The key implications of this study are two-fold. First, data from Thailand permits an examination of socioeconomic stratification of political participation both online and offline in a country outside the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and with profound digital inequality. Second, the similarities in the socioeconomic backgrounds of the UDD and PDRC online supporters, in stark contrast to their offline counterparts, suggest that social media engagement has a mitigating effect on participatory inequalities. Facebook thus provides a new avenue for those not engaged in offline political activities.


Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: June 1, 2017

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