BBC Uses Facebook To Skirt Repression

The last few years have brought plenty of examples of social media helping ordinary people communicate despite government repression -- and now at least one big news organization is following suit. Following a number of government-mandated “interruptions in service,” BBC Thailand has been using Facebook to reach millennials in that country and raise awareness of its new Thai-language online news service.

Following months of massive (and occasionally violent) protests, last year the Thai military overthrew the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, widely viewed as a proxy for her older brother Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted as prime minister and forced into exile by a previous coup in 2006. To quell dissent, the country’s military rulers have cracked down on journalists and news orgs that were critical of the junta’s policies; these measures have included blocking the BBC along with other foreign and domestic news orgs, both during the coup and on and off since then.

To give some idea of how seriously the junta takes this threat, earlier this week when the new military-supported prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, was asked about how the government plans to deal with recalcitrant journalists, he replied: “We'll probably just execute them.”

In response to the previous repression, the BBC has launched a new Thai-language social media news service with the specific goal of providing another source of information aside from censored domestic news outlets. The service, launched on Facebook in July 2014, initially began as an experimental three-month “pop-up” news outfit, but is still operational. It marked a return to the country by the BBC, which had previously shuttered its Thai-language news service in 2006. There are about 24 million Thai Facebook users, out of a total population of 67 million.

To help promote the service the BBC tapped Oban Digital, which specializes in cross-cultural and culture-specific digital marketing. The digital strategy focused on Thai millennials, which research showed were less familiar than older Thais with the BBC. Oban sought to make the BBC relevant to the younger audience by first analyzing the younger audience for their interests, news consumption habits, and preferred types of engagement -- from which the company derived a “lookalike” profile to target further potential viewers. They also identified influencers within the audience and tracked what they were sharing, and with whom.

After establishing these parameters, Oban and the BBC began promoting stories that had a political dimension related to current events in Thailand, but also social and cultural aspects that would appeal to Thai millennials. They settled -- perhaps inevitably, given the proclivities of the millennial demo wherever they may live -- on street food. Here a story about the military government’s proposed taxation of street vendors provided a hook for a series of digital videos about street food culture around the world. According to Oban, the campaign succeeded in engaging 6.9 million people.

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