Youth, Memes, and The Protest | Arjin Thong-yukong

Since the beginning of 2020, many peculiarly words that occurred on a social network such as “WWADFSL (We Will All Die From Stupid Leader)” “yup (derivative of yes in Thai, in term of sarcastic)” “la-mae” were written on banners in student protests across the country. The emblem of support also illustrated as the three-fingered salutes, which came into Thailand political protest after the 2014 coup by Prayuth Chan-ocha, current prime minister. (In 2014, Jatupat Boonpattarasaksa, Pai Dao Din, and 4 other pro-democracy activists were arrested in Khon Kaen, north-eastern of Thailand, after raised his hand with this salute while Prayuth has given a speech. It inspired and adapted from the Hunger Games books and films as an anti-government and anti-coup sign after)

These anti-government rallies associated with the various organizations and generations, university students, political activists, labour, and also Red Shirt protest (pro-democracy protest). Apparently, the protesters below 25 years-old became the centre of 2020 pro-democracy movement, and their internet culture influenced creative methods as a communication channel, consolidation, hashtags that relate to the rallies, and the unique language-set.

Arjin Thong-yukong, lecturer of Faculty of Sociology and Anthropology, Thammasat University, explained the unique language-set, hashtags, acronyms, and symbolics from the internet as “meme”.

Arjin Thong-yukong, lecturer of Faculty of Sociology and Anthropology, Thammasat University

“Meme” is the Cultural Diffusion or the Culture Code. The definition modified from Richard Dawkins’ biological, virus mutation concept. Which one culture can transform and blend in when it spreads from one to another group. 

Arjin elaborated that the concept of “meme” comprises four elements.

1. Single symbol, and the audience can interpret meaning without any explanation.

 2. Humor , the communication will go smoothly with a funny tone; if you criticize the government by adding some jokes or memes, people will be relieved to speak out with their friends or in public.

3. Expressive meaning, memes can conceal or hide direct conversation on controversial topics (especially the monarchy). If audiences understand the culture code, they will receive messages. The meme can cop-out on law prohibition, forbidding culture, and social norm.

 4. Easy to reproduce by putting new messages in the original meme.

“For example, when someone said ‘yup yup yup’, you can understand the whole context of a conversation. If you reply with yup, it does not convey to yes or no but could be both. Whatever topic you are talking, answer with yup show that position (not agree with sarcastic tone). Your audience will be on the same page with you if they understand this language code.”

Arjin added that initially meme received and derived as graphic or picture format. One of the global well-known is Success kid (a picture of the baby who expresses his determined face). It is interesting that when people understand the specific context of a meme, they can display the whole story by just adding a few connected words in a picture.

Success kid meme from 9gag.com
The Rendezvous Called Twitter

“Personally, the anti-government movement, especially from youth,is not only graphic memes . But also messages, symbolics, and using pop culture. The concept of meme also covers these manoeuvers, this is a culture code that people who share a part of internet culture together are using for communication. It moved from graphic or picture to text or language-set.”

Majority of online-users communicate by written text message. Thus, the notable characteristic and limitation of each platform affects intercourse, such as a platform that you need to keep sentences short as twitter (a single tweet can contain up to 280 characters). For the youth anti-government movement, who is using twitter as a central hub, they rapidly concerned about establishment of language-set, how to create impressive hashtags, word choices, and these different words became one method for friendly movement and spreading the politic idea.

Shattering Culture

The function of a meme or the culture code is running by the level of an individual’s understanding. However, Arjin found the diversity of “youth” media consumption. 

The cultural fragmentation leads to the non-mainstream situation. The media companies are offering alternative channels to the consumer, such as Netflix or Youtube, which do not have strict broadcast programming or timeslot like television shows. Consumers can manage their watching time, choose any programmes or any episodes by themselves.

University Student’s t-shirt with modified “Katsuya-senpai” meme at Thammasat University rally

“Considering how pop-culture involves in political rallies, the massive one that represented middle-class consumption is the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), Yellow Shirt. During that time, you can see artists and actors came out and shown their political support. They had the art lane, art contribution road, is that similar to the present day? No it is not. It might be called pop-culture, that compound with a niche environment, reflected the consumption trend of the contemporary-media channel, the input is quite different from the beforehand and the mainstream media is mostly non-existing.”

Conceiving Internet Culture, Old Generation

Not only the political perspective, for Arjin the elder also have to understand youth messages, which is complicated by the exclusive movement.

“You will fit with a concept when you get into this culture, thus who can? I also do not know. It does not similar to the previous activities that used old-method movement and tried to pull a dozen as much as they can. Their demands were more broadly and generally, just wear theme-color shirt, yellow or red, or bring your whistle. However, in the present they are calling for various aspects of the democratic reform. When the phenomenon is exclusive, they might have the same requirement in separate rallies, it can expand to other protests and raise the new topic, anyhow, they still have the same purpose.”

Hence, how do adults acknowledge this language-set?

Arjin demonstrated that youth are growing up with the cyberculture, Googling is their best companion.

“My practical understanding about youth, they do not give priority to the audience’s comprehension. They just want to raise the banner or speak their voice out, and your recognition will be absolutely overlooked. If you desire to get into these ideas you have to catch it by yourself. Learning about internet culture becomes a task for the older generation to derive the 2020 political protest concept. They do not even concern that you will receive the messages or recognize who they are, if you want to understand our culture, just google.”

Across the limitation

Regarding the vague character of culture code that is used in the political movement, on Arjin’s perspective the exciting part is the language-set are gradually breaking the limitation on a taboo, especially a monarchy and royal family, which the previous generation scarcely mentioned.

“These days, you noticed that conversation surpassed its limit, people in the 30-40 years-old range who grew up with the Red Shirt protest surprised with what they saw on twitter. From that moment political issues are sensitive, they are breaking and criticising the king’s social status or the lese majeste law. Anyway, this development is not a problem, their political movement just points out that which part of state performances or laws is the crux. Without doubt, this is a challenge and memes are playing a significant role as an instrument to crack the barrier.”

Parody banner of King Rama X in 16th August 2020 protest 

The unique “meme” culture-code can overcome this awareness, they created a funny and relaxing environment on a serious topic through cosy and comfortable platforms.

Youth and Politic

He also reflected a diverse between the political movement after 1997 to present. The Yellow Shirt’s political concept is morality, which combines with several elements as corruption, infringe a law, and the most crucial part is loyal to royal.

For the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) rallies, Red Shirt, they agitated for the rural political right, which is a majority of the citizens living outside Bangkok, a centre of Thailand. This group kept people who are not upper-middle-class close and demanded for equality rights. The topic was about economic class, life, or we can conclude  that the Red Shirt demand is the bargaining power on the economic aspect.

Afterwards, the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), the concept moved to another issue, such as the leader of PDRC, Suthep Thueaksuban, announced that “old Suthep is dead and re-birth as Lung Kamnan”, (Lung = uncle, Kamnan = sub-district headman, Suthep was elected as Kamnan). Therefore, the concept was denied the existence of politicians (Suthep is a former politician, thus he released from this image and shifted to the ordinary), their movement became how to choose good people as the Ruler . This is about good-bad, nationalism, and a standpoint was denied political affairs.

Left: a picture of Hamtaro that refer to Hamtaro rally, 26th July 2020
Right: famous meme on the internet

Currently, particularly the youth movement, they are using the non-serious and nonsensical contemporary culture as the political symbols.

“They picked some frivolous staffs, as a Japanese kid-cartoon character (Hamtaro rally, protesters changed its theme song lyrics and sand together, used it as a peaceful anti-government event), the LGBT homecoming culture (danced and performed comedy), Harry Potter (dressed as Harry Potter characters and cast a spell for democracy). The intangible messages convey that politics is not a bad thing, but everything is politics and everyone involved.”

Arjin clarified “politics related to everything” on cyberspace conversation.

Yelling at the doll, represented as the prime minister,
event in anti-government rally hosted by LGBT group, 25th July 2020 

“I loved one tweet on twitter, said ‘if we have a better politic, you were not starved for 5,000 baht concert ticket, you will have better life quality’ this is a whole message that can be available in one tweet. Which reflects the fact that people compare the entertaining cost with fundamental requisites, how many working hours that you have to pay for a concert ticket or single sport match. No need to imagine on  the Premier League, just 100-200 baht Thais football game meanwhile our minimum wage is 300 baht per day, or how many office hours for 5,000 baht concert ticket.”

The conversation about these topics illustrates that youth’s demands are not separate political from daily life.

“The spark of youth power expresses an attempt that they are calling for a brighter future, will you live with this kind of society, when you are graduated with this political structure, where is your good life? Why the older forwards this community to them, they expect a greater environment than what they are living with.”

Twitter Got Talent

The youth rising also has a break-new-ground communication channel. For example Twitter and Facebook are important social platforms. Which Arjin explained that it has culture norms explicitly inside, Fanclub custom, the gather into a group of folk, Korean idol (K-pop), movie, cartoon, football etc.

The exciting concept of this culture is Fanclub groups have power and potential to demand, if The fans are unsatisfied with the series, they may organize a group and complain to the production team. The bargaining power is increasing when the amount of members is larger and when it comes to an end these groups have both quantity of members and quality of negotiation. This development also reflects on political movement.

Left: “Students are not manipulated, they just believe in Democracy”
Right: “The only soldier that I admire is Ri Junghyuk”
Refer to the Korean drama lead character from Crush Landing on You
at Kasetsart University rally in the first of 2020

He analyzed K-pop Fanclub story, because twitter is the central-hub or gathering point of the K-pop Fanclub, then these people who used to this interesting bargain culture turn it to the political realm.

“Thai K-pop Fanclub called as the project creator, they always offence that Korean entertainment companies are not noticed this market, they are not large-scale consumers as in China or Japan. Then they created attraction activities. Sample are impressive projects (subway banner, a large LED screen in public, or social media advertisement), and the aim is to make idols or singers appreciated. Which these projects are pretty serious, they will mobilize people (organizer team such as the graphic team and donation team) and asset, this is not about money only but also knowledge, connections, and resources for one project.”

The political call out or political rally demand their request to the administration, as Fanclub requires from the production team. They are bravely to speak out what is their desire, and deserve, to the government and they will come out with the systematic mobilize skills if they get no response.

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In conclusion, the youth’s politic concept shaped by the internet

“They have wide-eyes but getting nowhere, they ask questions about how the government effort their life compared to the world. They are struggling for a brighter future and demand for it, the elders are not like this because they do not know how the internet provides open access. However, younger looks beyond and realized that current life is not okay.”

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