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In Thailand’s democracy, emoticons and retweets are becoming the new ballots.

On Monday, protest organizers asked supporters on Facebook whether they should hold rallies that evening: The “care” emoticon signaled “rest for one day,” while the “wow” emoticon was a vote to “keep going!” The majority on Facebook chose to continue the protests. A similar poll was also done on Twitter, using like and retweet buttons for the vote.

Platforms like Facebook Inc., Twitter Inc. and Telegram Group Inc. have emerged as the backbone of the youth-led movement posing an unprecedented challenge to King Maha Vajiralongkorn and Thailand’s royalist establishment. Mirroring the “Be Water” tactics mastered by protesters in Hong Kong last year, the decentralized movement is using online forums to ask supporters to vote on when and where to rally — sometimes choosing multiple locations at once.

The moves have kept the police off balance: Authorities last week shut down parts of Bangkok and some mass transit stations in an unsuccessful bid to stop protesters from gathering. They’ve now held rallies each day since Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha issued an emergency decree to ban large gatherings.

And while police have arrested more than 70 people, including prominent leaders, others are lined up to take their place as protesters push for Prayut’s resignation, a more democratic constitution and more accountability for a monarchy that holds more power and wealth than any institution in Thailand.

“We’re already creating a headache for the government just by doing leaderless rallies to show them that people are against them,” Arthitaya Pornprom, one of the protest organizers, said in a phone interview. “We’re showing them that even though the leaders are gone, the movement continues. Everybody’s a leader.”

Pop-up protests

On Friday, protesters were able to use social media to gather at a new location within an hour after police thwarted their initial plans. Since then they’ve been regularly popping up at various locations for a short period of time before dispersing quickly to avoid crackdowns.

Although Thailand has long dealt with street protests, these tactics are all new in Bangkok. In previous years, police had to contend with demonstrators backed by major political figures who occupied streets or strategic locations like the international airport for days or weeks.

Now the movement is based in cyberspace, and authorities are struggling to stop it. The government on Monday asked internet and phone service providers to block access to messaging application Telegram, used by the protesters in recent days to coordinate plans. Last month, a cabinet minister filed a complaint against some social media platforms for noncompliance with requests to take down content that the government deemed “inappropriate.”

Prayut, who has said the government’s key task is to “protect the monarchy,” on Tuesday ordered police to reconsider censorship of media outlets, a day after authorities said they would probe four news outlets that may have violated the emergency decree.

“Our job is to protect the country and eliminate ill-intentioned actions aimed at creating chaos and conflict in the country,” Prayut told reporters after a cabinet meeting. It approved a special parliament session starting Oct. 26 to discuss the protests, though it still needs the king’s approval to go ahead.

Economic impact

Any ban on platforms like Facebook would upset more than 50 million active users in Thailand — equivalent to more than 70% of the population — who use social media to chat, shop and follow current events. Past government threats to take legal action against social media giants haven’t materialized, even though some posts and pages have been removed or blocked.

“The government has found it hard to suppress this kind of leaderless, cyberorganizing movement,” said David Streckfuss, a scholar of Southeast Asian politics and an author of a book on Thailand’s lese majeste laws. “They could shut down social media — they have the power to do that. But it’ll come at a price. The current economic situation is bad enough, and many businesses rely on social media. They’d make the economic situation even worse, prompting more movement against it.”

The protests have already weighed on the country’s stocks and currency as concerns mount that a prolonged standoff may erode company earnings and delay an economic recovery. The benchmark stock index, the worst performer in Asia this year, closed near a six-month low on Tuesday while the baht fell 0.3% to 31.271 to a dollar, extending losses this year to 4.2%.

For their part, protest organizers like Arthitaya are set to keep going.

“We’re gaining momentum for the movement more than before so we have to keep holding rallies,” she said. “The anger from the protesters will continue to increase. If the government keeps stepping up its crackdown, more people will come out.”

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