General elections in May 2023 were seen as a potential turning point for Thailand and for media freedom after decades of authoritarian rule. The poll was the first since youth-led protests in 2020 shook Thailand’s establishment by calling for the powers of the monarchy to be curbed, and for the military-backed constitution to be rewritten.
The shock success of the reformist Move Forward party, which secured the largest number of seats, was largely due to an imaginative social media-based campaign that appealed to younger voters in particular and offered a different kind of political leadership. The election period also saw intense coverage of dysfunction in public services as well as executive corruption.
Outside election periods the mainstream media tend to be constrained in terms of critical reporting – with major outlets often reporting the government line. Newer outlets like Voice TV have tried to provide more alternative views, which in turn has led to harassment by the authorities over the last few years. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), defamation and cybercrime laws are systematically used in Thailand to harass journalists, and the government also has the power to suspend the licences of media outlets that threaten ‘public decency’.1 Smaller and online media outlets tend to be given more leeway and many former journalists now create and distribute news content via platforms like YouTube, building personal brands for themselves in the process. During the COVID-19 pandemic reliable news was often to be found on Facebook pages reflecting what was happening in local communities, but these have expanded into a range of genres in widely read forums such as Saved Sai Mai Page (social welfare), Watch Dog Page (corruption), and Drama Addict Page (social dramas).
The Thai public has a voracious appetite for sensationalist news stories including true crime and supernatural beliefs, with ‘concerned citizens’ often carrying out their own investigations online using techniques once only available to journalists. These social media investigators, dubbed 'Naksueb Social’, have broken a number of stories which are often followed up by the mainstream media – though the most reputable news outlets, we find, tend to conduct additional investigations and interviews of their own.
Self-censorship about the Thai monarchy is heavily practised, not least because journalists face the threat of up to 15 years in prison if they breach the penal code. For this reason, a serious scare around the health of the King’s daughter was largely ignored by most news organisations, beyond the bland official statements from the palace. By contrast the rumours about her possible death were widely shared and discussed in every social media platform. The royal succession remains a matter of intense interest and has the potential to derail the nation’s stability.
News reporting and soap operas are the Thais' top favourite programmes, as evidenced by increased advertising airtime on OTT TV and streaming services. Short-form videos on Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok are also gaining more attention and importance, and most news organisations – if not all – with online access have presences on all three networks.
TikTok usage has grown again this year with half of our sample (51%) using the short-form video network for any purpose and 30% for news consumption – up 8 percentage points on last year. Younger Thais have embraced the platform while other news consumers consume longer video formats via YouTube. Our survey this year confirms that Thais prefer to watch the news online rather than read it or listen to it – one of the few countries to show that trend. This is making it even harder for newspapers with a print background to engage audiences via their websites and apps.
Advertising remains the main business model for news publishers, with a heavy payload of advertisements on websites, and product placement is widely practised on TV news programmes. Print advertising is in decline along with circulation. Paying for online news through subscriptions is extremely rare in Thailand.
The merger of telecom giants True and DTAC in 2023 may have significant implications for the media sector and access to popular news services. Until now healthy competition has led to cheap and unlimited data packages, which in turn have driven the popularity of OTT platforms – including news streaming services. It remains to be seen if that will change as a result of the merger.
Professor Jantima Kheokao
Asian Network for Public Opinion Research (ANPOR)
Potsdam University, Germany
Although television remains an important source of news for older Thais, others rely heavily on online and social media sources for news. The most important social media platforms for news include Facebook, YouTube, Line, and TikTok.
Trust in news overall
Trust in news I use
Trust in the news remains stable and relatively high compared with other countries (9th/46) – as do the trust scores for individual news brands. TV channels such as Channel 7 HD News and the PSB Thai TBS tend to have higher levels of trust when compared with newspapers.