Thai university student Petcharee discovered politics through K-pop.
The 19-year-old signed up to Twitter two years ago to know more about her favorite South Korean boy band NCT, becoming one of its 4.8 million followers. But scrolling through her feed she saw viral posts by a charismatic Thai politician named Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, whose withering, anti-establishment barbs helped his upstart Future Forward party finish third in 2019 elections.
"I was unsure about him at first, because I didn't know who he was, but I was exposed to the political world after following more politics-related accounts. As well as still keeping up with K-pop," Petcharee told VICE News. Though the party was later dissolved and Thanathorn pushed out of parliament, something had changed in the way she saw the world.
"I became more politically 'woke,'" Petcharee said. She attended her first protest late last year at a skywalk in the Thai capital Bangkok, and was also present in the same area this month when police used water cannons on demonstrators.
For decades Thailand has been shaken by street protests, instability, and coups, the last one in 2014. But a growing pro-democracy movement is drawing strength from legions of new participants, many of them high school and college students like Petcharee drawn into the fight online and especially on Twitter, where K-pop fandoms thrive.
Thailand has one of the highest rates of Twitter use in Asia, and the number of users was projected to reach 4.1 million up from 2.7 in 2014, according to research. In recent weeks, every day of protest has been accompanied by hashtags that quickly trend in Thailand and sometimes globally. Fan groups from Thailand with profile pictures of different Korean stars have jumped on board, mixing celebrity news with retweets of political developments to tens of thousands of followers.
Even for those not usually passionate about politics, it's impossible to avoid.
A 27-year-old sales consultant who asked to be identified by her Twitter handle @punpods for privacy reasons said she uses Twitter to keep up with boy band GOT7. She said she is now more "aware" of what's going on, echoing a view of some first-time protesters who say social media is a way of getting different kinds of information and steering clear of government narratives.
"It's different news from other platforms. Maybe not fact-checked, but it's another platform to receive different sides of information and opinions whether you agree or disagree."
@punpods attended her first ever protest in Bangkok on Oct .15 and another one the following day.
For 32-year-old online content creator Witthawat, who signed up for Twitter around 10 years ago to follow news about the group Girls' Generation, Twitter is simply much faster than Facebook in terms of sharing information.
"I would get to see all these retweets," he told VICE News, adding that he has been intrigued enough to attend some protests though he is still cautious about what he shares online since it is difficult to verify information.
But the connection between K-pop and the Thai protest movement has also been more than a political entry portal. Fans recently crowdfunded around 3 million baht (around $95,000) to support the ongoing political movement in Thailand, which surged earlier this year and has led to near-daily protests in the last two weeks. It is calling for the prime minister to resign and for the king to have reduced powers under a new constitution.
The donations were used to buy around 4,000 helmets, raincoats, gloves, safety hats and similar materials needed for rainy nights and potential police crackdowns. The donations were allocated to different accounts based on preferred bands and tallied up in the end.
"For the millionth time, this fan club power is what pooyai [adults or grown-ups in Thai] like to underestimate," actress, activist, and prominent sponsor Sai Charoenpura wrote on Twitter.
The largest donation, around $25,000, came from fans of Girls' Generation, a girl group that debuted in 2007, and some of the first artists to bring the world's attention to K-pop.
The interplay of South Korean pop and far-flung political movements is not a new phenomenon. The seven-member boy band BTS, which has almost 25 million followers on Twitter, is known for speaking out and donating to social causes, as are their fans. In June this year, the group donated $1 million to the Black Lives Matter movement. TikTok users and K-pop fans also claimed credit for diminished crowd sizes at a rally for United States President Donald Trump.
But some K-pop idols are attracting attention for not speaking up in Thailand at a time when more and more prominent personalities in the country are voicing support for the protests. At a mass pro-democracy gathering on Oct. 18 in Bangkok, a speaker alluded to the girl group BLACKPINK's only Thai member Lisa. Though the speaker didn't mention her by name, she said: "I would like to mention something about all the artists or actors/actresses. You guys have louder noises than us, therefore, please come out. I only have 400 followers, you have 40 million followers."
Lisa has 40 million Instagram followers, and participants assumed she was being called out. The comments became a heated topic discussion on Twitter where fans both rushed to Lisa's defence or urged her to speak up. Some super fans threatened to not attend protests. Others criticized the choice of speaker that the protest leaders had made.
Serene Ramnee, a 25-year-old manager at a startup company, signed up for Twitter specifically to keep up with news about Lisa from BLACKPINK, the first K-pop band to perform at Coachella. Like many others, she was drawn into political discussions and debates from being on the platform. Now she says she feels "betrayed."
"There have been other Korean idols who have spoken up about political issues," adding that Thailand's pro-democracy movement could use Lisa's vocal support.
For 19-year-old Petcharee, the newfound engagement with the movement via K-pop has been an overall transformative experience.
"What I once considered as just my personal interest has become something that is really impactful upon my life," she said.
"I have more political awareness now and have courage do many things I never imagined I could do when I was younger."
Choltanutkun Tun-atiruj is a Thai journalist and co-founder of the digital media website Thisrupt.