Weluree Ditsayabut, 22, Miss Universe Thailand has resigned from her title because of a barrage of negative comments on social media. As Miss Thailand, Ditsayabut would have competed in the Miss Universe Pageant.
Before winning Miss Thailand, Ditsayabut had posted disparaging comments towards the supporters of the former government – called the “Red Shirts”.
Her comments were not tame. In one post she called for the execution of their leaders.
In another post, she called them “dirty”:
On the night of her coronation, Red Shirt supporters had booed and hissed in the audience. The negative sentiment only continued, with references to her weight gain being particularly numerous – some had called her “chubby”.
The former actress and talk show host, cited the pain her mother had been going through because of the criticism as one of the reasons why she resigned.
For many this may seem like just a quirky news story about a flighty beauty queen. Actually, maybe it is. But it points to profound differences in the cultures of East and West and the impact of social media in these cultures.
New Leverage for Old Behaviors
Observing that Asian cultures are more conformist than Western cultures places one in peril of being labeled ethnocentric or much worse a racist. But this would presume that underlying the observation is a belief that one culture is inherently superior to the other, and that is certainly not the case here. Instead, the reason for pointing out that Asian cultures place a high value on conformity, saving face of oneself and family, and avoiding public shame is to highlight how malleable the online experience can be.
One of the phrases I love to use in my classes and in writings is “the Internet provides new leverage for old behaviors”. I’m sure it is a rather common expression in some circles, but my exposure to it came from reading Clay Shirky’s book Here Comes Everybody a few years ago.
The expression sums up a simple, yet profound truth about our digital environment. We have a new space that presents new potentialities. However, we will use the new potential to accomplish the same old goals.
And so, in cultures that value conformity and saving face, we see how social media can be used to enforce that conformity by shaming people. It’s not simply that the “Red Shirt” supporters showered Ms. Ditsayabut with negativity. That happens everywhere. It is also that she, being a part of that culture, feels the sting of shame more. She was shamed and through her so was her family. And that was enough for her to voluntarily resign.
I cannot imagine a similar situation in the United States, even though we have had our share of scandals – including a Miss USA scandal (Vanessa Williams). Usually what happens here is that in the presence of a scandal it would be the employer, who feels economic pressure, that would do the firing. If there is no legal resource to firing – or in the case of a government official, impeachment – the person will simply weather the social media storm, and wait for a new story to emerge and push him off the front page. Shame has nothing to do with it.
In fact, engineered social media scandals are used to increase the popularity of a celebrity in Western cultures. Would we be talking about Kim Kardashian now if not for her leaked sex tape with Ray-J?
South Korea as an Example
It can be argued that it is foolhardy to draw a sweeping conclusion that Asian cultures use social media to enforce conformity. Certainly they use it for freedom of expression as well. The Weluree Ditsayabut story is just an anecdote.
But the plural of anecdote is data. South Korea is a country well known for its conformity. It is also notorious for its citizens cyberattacking (not through viruses or worms – but through rumor and suspicion) , and for suicides by celebrities because of negative opinions on social media:
Choi Jin-sil (actress) – harassed for making public that she was a victim of domestic violence.
Kim Ji-hoo (model) – harassed for announcing his homosexuality
Old Leverage for “Supposedly” New Behaviors?
In 2007 Government officials in South Korea had concluded that the digital environment had given its citizens too much leverage to shame. A law was passed that required people to use their real names on websites – an “internet real-name system” as it was called.
It was an old, tired response by a government that still has some vestiges of autocratic thinking. This law was struck down by that country’s constitutional court. I’m happy that it was. Passing laws such as these may work in the short term, but do more harm than good. First, they curtail free speech and undermine democracy. This is obvious. And second, the law is aimed at the leverage and not the behavior. As an analogy, we can, if we want, make cars so that they can only go 65 miles per hour. But the issue of speeding has more to do with the person driving the car than the car itself.
And so it is with shaming, losing face, and conformity. It will be interesting to see how cultures, especially Eastern cultures, balance the old behavior of shaming with the new leverage of social media in the years to come.