During the December university break, I began to work with a professor at my university on an exploratory research project on the role of mobile digital media among Myanmar migrant workers to understand how they use digital media to navigate their lives in Thailand. We were particularly interested in how they use digital media as a medium of empowerment and to manage precarity in their everyday lives. My first mission was to conduct an interview at the Talad Thai market, a 24-hour market where hundreds of Myanmar Migrant workers engage in sales of many different fresh groceries. However, within not long, the second outbreak of Covid-19 took hold and we decided to cease any field research and we turned our attention to doing a digital ethnography of how migrants were engaging with social media during the pandemic. Digital ethnography is an innovative new methodology, as “an offshoot ethnography, digital ethnography is a method of representing real-life cultures through combining the characteristic features of digital media with the elements of story” (Underberg & Zorn, 2013, p. 10).
As a Myanmar student in an International Bachelor program in Thailand, I have lived in somewhat of a bubble. While I heard from time to time about the difficulties faced by Myanmar migrants I wasn’t concerned with it much. But as I threw myself into the online world of Myanmar migrants, I discovered the fractured world migrants live in and the discrimination they experience as an underclass in Thai society. I have also become acutely aware of my own identity as a Myanmar national in Thailand. In extension, I began to explore how social media supports forms of solidarity but also can polarize society.
To understand the migrant world through digital ethnography, I joined the groups they were in, liked the Myanmar migrant support organisations and personal pages. Since the second outbreak spread widely within the Myanmar community, Myanmar people were sharing stories on Facebook of experiencing various forms of discrimination ranging from not being allowed to enter some banks, some hospitals and some shops or taking transportation. Some shared their experience on Facebook on how they had paid for the insurance; however, they were not allowed to get treatment just because of their nationality. Not only the Myanmar workers but also Myanmar nationals residing in Thailand, in general, were prone to these incidents. For example, there was a Myanmar couple, the lady is a student from Mahidol University and they were not allowed to take the bus just because they are Myanmar nationals.
Seeing so many posts on how Myanmar migrants are subjected to discrimination, I became concerned about myself when I go outside as well. At the time, an aunt of mine was receiving treatment at Samitivej hospital near Suvarnabhumi airport. I usually take public transportation to get there but during this period, given the COVID-19 situation, for the first time, I decided to commute directly to the hospital using the taxi rather than taking public transportation. However, then I was scared of the police checkpoints since I heard they were checking if Myanmar migrants are travelling across provinces. So, on second thought, if I were in a taxi alone it might be easier for the police to spot and check me, so I decided to take the school van which goes to Victory Monument and take the Skytrain which will allow me to just immerse myself in other Thai students or people and thus, I suppose, I would not be prone to any risks.
After staying with my aunt for a few days, I decided to go back to my dorm. When I took a taxi to get to the Airport Rail Link, the taxi driver asked me if I was Thai, I said no and he asked where I was from. Suddenly, my face was heating up and I was silent for maybe 3 seconds thinking about what to answer. Finally, I replied, “I am from Singapore” as it was the first country on the top of my mind since I recently saw some Facebook posts that some Myanmar nationals in Bangkok were lying that they are Singaporeans to protect themselves. This kind of behaviour is not uncommon among some of my friends even before COVID-19 to prevent discrimination. However, I thought that it was unnecessary and I usually replied that I am from Myanmar. Yet, this time I had to lie because based on stories I have seen online, revealing my national identity could pose a threat to me. Maybe it would not have been as bad as I thought after all but the availability bias in my head after repeatedly seeing similar stories affected my decisions and behaviour. How easy information can be recalled on a certain subject from our memory has a direct impact on our decision-making process and how we judge the probabilities of a certain incident to occur (Tversky and Kahneman, 1973).
Meanwhile, concerns of discrimination compounded as I did further digital ethnographic. Notably, I came across posts of COVID-19 patients sharing how they experienced being quarantined. For instance, they showed how there was no social distance among them, poor ventilation and in some facilities, they just had to sleep on the floor.
According to a post from AAC, a migrant support organization’s page:
“Myanmar people infected with Covid 19 in a seafood factory in the Mahachai area are not sent to hospital but put in a hall and food they have to eat is not okay for them. So, people from outside brought some food for them but the Thai police threatened to capture them and shoo them away. People inside were also threatened that if they upload pictures online, they will be sued for defamation.”
However, some people still managed to send pictures to AAC which were shared on social media to voice out their difficult conditions and concerns. Similar living conditions are reported in an article in The Guardian as well.
In response to this situation, some migrant workers called for solidarity among the Myanmar migrant community on social media. One said, “Wish everyone to be away from the pandemic, be healthy both physically and mentally.” sending good wishes to the fellow Myanmar migrant workers who are going through obstacles during the pandemic.
Some encouraged each other to stay strong and united and accept what happens in the face of crisis while living in a foreign country as one commented“I want Myanmar people to stay united. Since we are already in a foreign country, we just have to bear with it.” spreading messages to overcome the obstacles with unity. In this regard, social media helps keep them together virtually.
Social media also serves as an outlet for individuals to open up about their feelings and share their difficulties in the face of uncertainty and vulnerability working abroad without documents. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Thai government introduced a legal documentation program for undocumented migrant workers issuing pink cards as a mean to control the spread of the virus. However, getting a pink card comes with a cost; 13,000 THB without the payment for the broker. One migrant noted, “workers earn only 350 THB per day yet the pink card cost this much (13,000 THB)” with a sad emoji on a Facebook group. Through these calls for solidarity, migrant workers could use social media to share their feelings with one another who are in the same situation and encourage each other making them feel like “they are not alone” even though they may not know each other in person. This phenomenon is reflected in a study on migration. Before, people tended to assimilate into the host societies where they have moved to, however, now they tend to be more mobile and they live in “virtual ghettos or enclaves” creating a space of their own and separating themselves from the wider society that they live in (Komito & Bates, 2009). For the online Myanmar migrant community, these virtual enclaves allowed them to stay close, connected, and be supported without the need to integrate into the host community in times of difficulty. But this may also have allowed them to isolate themselves from the rest of the society and polarise as well which could be observed within the Myanmar migrant facebook communities.
Despite the positive effects of growing solidarity among the Myanmar migrant workers community, social media also enabled them to further exclude themselves from the rest of society. The way the Internet and platforms work has a role in this. Because of the large amount of information online, platforms like Facebook are engineered to cater information to consumers or in other words, they foster selective exposure behaviour (Iyengar and Hahn, 2009, p. 34). In the case of the migrant online communities, this means that individuals are more and more exposed to comments critical or even hateful of Thailand and Thais such as:
“Do you still consider Myanmar people as human beings? We have to pay to live and work here. Please be sympathetic towards fellow humans. Think about how you would feel if you were us!”
As a result, many began encouraging people to go back to Myanmar to escape from these acts of discriminations and at the same time let the Thai people feel how much they need them, such as this member suggested:
“After this COVID-19 is over, let’s go and work back in our home country since it is distressing to live here. Thai gov’t will have to write a letter of pleading to get us back since their economy is running based on the Myanmar workforce. Everyone go back home! Then only, they will realise our worth.”
How solidarity and increased polarisation go hand in hand was demonstrated by repeated calls to actions to show their disagreement in the way they can. Some migrants started to call on to boycott the banks that do not allow Myanmar nationals. One migrant worker posted in a Facebook group,“Try not to use their services. These banks discriminate against Myanmar people.” referring to banks that do not allow Myanmar nationals to enter. While boycotts, are a peaceful means of protesting discrimination it can easily be perceived how in another more heated discussion more aggressive actions could be called for.
Some studies conducted in homogeneous communities align with what was happening in the online Myanmar migrant community. The communities work as “feedback loops or echo chambers” where they see and hear what they think about right and wrong on blogs or other media (Bishop, 2008). Pariser (2011) coined the term filter bubble for this phenomenon where the people experience living in a bubble due to the customization and personalisation that have been done by platforms and people only see the information that is related to the previous content that they viewed or engaged with. Misinformation commonly plays a role in these filter bubbles and increasing polarisation in internet communities. This could also be observed in the Myanmar migrant communities on Facebook where some conspiracy theories arose stating that this second outbreak is to divert Thai people’s attention from protests and to keep the country stable. One member wrote:
“Here’s what I think. Recently, there were huge demonstrations, remember? They (Thais) were fighting with each other. Then, there comes the news about COVID-19 cases of Myanmar people. All of a sudden, everyone’s attention is on us. They become united; no one’s protesting anymore. If I am not wrong, ….”
With the filter bubble nature of social media, this kind of conspiracies and narratives are echoed in online communities, accentuating their polarisation and distrust of Thai authorities.
Social media has kept people connected together during these difficult times; the Myanmar communities could voice out their feelings, thoughts and experiences and share with other fellow Myanmar people who are in the same situation. Personally, I could see the struggles of fellow Myanmar people, and empathize with them. However, the repeated exposure to that kind of content in the filter bubble has impacted my thoughts and even adjusted my actions based on what I was exposed to. It has also caused “Us vs Them” feelings which is probably the same case in the minds of the Myanmar migrant workers after seeing all those posts on social media repeatedly during that time. Thus, social media is a double edged sword; fostering both solidarity and polarization; as much as its power to bring people together in a homogenous group, it can be a medium for the polarization of heterogeneous communities or groups of people.
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