As protests in Thailand gain momentum, harsh laws and censorship have restricted citizens from engaging in meaningful political discourse. However, mounting protest campaigns on social media are putting the government on the defensive.
By Umair Jamal
Twitter has banned over 900 accounts believed to be linked to the Royal Thai Army. The accounts reportedly targeted opposition politicians and young pro-democracy activists.
“Our investigation uncovered a network of accounts partaking in information operations that we can reliably link to the Royal Thai Army (RTA),” read a statement from Twitter.
At the same time, the country’s social media environment is rife with anti-government and pro-democracy campaigns. With traditional media under greater scrutiny in Thailand, Twitter offers Thais a platform for political resistance with a potential for global reach.
The government of former general and now Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha is clearly under threat from viral activist campaigns on Twitter and other online platforms.
In the early hours of October 15, the government announced a state of emergency in an effort to clear pro-democracy protests that drew tens of thousands of people to the streets of Bangkok the day before. As well as banning gatherings of five or more people, the decree specifically prohibits “publication of news, other media and electronic information that contains messages that could create fear or intentionally distort information, creating misunderstanding that will affect national security or peace and order.”
Despite the recent Twitter bans, in the coming days and weeks, the government is likely to deploy still more resources and efforts to counter anti-government forces online.
Why would the Thai government launch fake information operations?
Prayut seized power in a military coup in 2014 in an attempt to end the nearly decade-long political deadlock in the country. Since then, hundreds of pro-democracy activists have been arrested by his regime and some have even been killed under mysterious circumstances. Anyone making social media posts that the government might consider harmful to the country’s national security or the royal family could face serious action under the Computer Crimes Act and lese-majeste law.
Despite tightening state controls over social media, the growing online discontent has infuriated the current government. Prayut has openly suggested that reporters who don’t state the truth should be killed. Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan has threatened to prosecute those who disseminate information that might impact national security or damage a particular organization’s reputation.
Earlier this year, a Thai journalist was sentenced to two years in prison by a court for allegedly defaming the owner of a poultry farm via a tweet. While the journalist is currently out on bail, the development indicates that anyone the authorities see as critical of the government on social media can also be put on trial and sentenced.
On March 24, Thailand declared a state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic and announced that anyone who criticizes the government’s actions may face prosecution.
The country’s traditional media has been tainted with pro-military propaganda in the name of national security. There is widespread censorship when it comes to these outlets’ coverage of any criticism of the ruling establishment. For instance, the country’s courts may interpret even minor criticism of powerful government figures as a violation of the law, resulting in serious punishments. This censorship, or self-censorship, means that Thais are relying on social media to register their discontent against the government. In this regard, Twitter has become the latest platform for dissent for thousands of Thai activists.
Understanding the pressure of Thailand’s hashtag activism
To counter these challenges, the Thai military appears to have organized their own social media operations. Twitter’s move to ban the accounts came following a report by the Stanford Internet Observatory. Reportedly, the accounts linked to the Thai army mainly made posts targeting activists who criticize the government, its supporters, the military or the royal family. “Most of the army-linked accounts had only a few followers and many had none,” noted an article published in the Union of Catholic Asian News. Three-quarters of the accounts had no bio on their profile.
There is credible evidence to suggest that these information operations are run under the direct command of the prime minister.
Paritta Wangkiat, quoting lawmaker Wiroj Lakkhanaadisorn of the disbanded Future Forward Party (FFP), wrote in the Bangkok Post that the army has an actual policy for such information operations (IOs). “The army has specific funding for its IOs, which paid each of the officers an extra 100-300 baht [US$3.21-9.62] monthly for the mission. Those whose social media pages and accounts became popular were awarded 3,000 baht each. The army had also set up Line groups for this mission,” Paritta notes, referring to Wiroj’s revelations.
In Thailand, more than 50 million social media users make the country a leader in global rankings for connectivity and internet. Roughly 17 million Thais are present on Twitter alone. Some of the most prominent political hashtags, which translate as #LousyGovernment, #GetOutPrayuth, #NoConfidence, #PleaseEnjoyUsingTaxpayersMoney and #OneStupidLeaderIsGoingToKillUsAll, have been used by millions of Thais to voice anger over the existing state of politics in the country.
For instance, a tweet saying, in Thai, “Will I ever live to see Thailand become a developed country?” has been retweeted more than 70,000 times. Another tweet that said “Let’s plan a way to kick out Prayut” earned 56,000 retweets. The nearly unprecedented hashtag #WhyDoWeNeedAKing was shared more than 1 million times.
Thais’ growing online activism challenges the military’s hold on power and presents a worrying prospect for the army’s authority in politics. With millions now joining online protests and movements against the ruling establishment, the military’s traditional crackdown tactics face a challenge.
What to expect from the Thai government’s IO in the coming days?
Twitter may have been able to block some accounts linked to the Thai military, but it is likely that more such accounts will appear soon.
Regardless of how it handles mass protests on the streets of Bangkok and other cities, the military-aligned government will invest more resources to manage the threat of online activism. The government will use existing laws to harass and detain pro-democracy politicians, activists and journalists while activating and recruiting more people for its online operations.
This policy has already impacted the country’s image abroad and, over the years, left its economy weaker. However, any concessions offered to pro-democracy forces could prove a major setback for the military’s control in the country.
Both sides are in for a long and messy fight in which social media plays a decisive role. That said, the days of absolute control over the flow of information are gone for the Thai military establishment.