Last week, an IO (Information Operation) campaign alleged to “misinform, intimidate and cause division among citizens” was exposed. The opposition accused the prime minister and the military of directly conducting this covert operation. Both the prime minister and the military deny the allegation, saying that it is the opposition who is conducting an IO campaign.
What has brought us to this latest social media drama?
Check out Thailand’s top trending Twitter hashtags on any given day and you would find the like of #ลิซ่าBLACKPINK (Lisa Black Pink) or #CrashLandingOnYouFinale. If you don’t know who or what they are, you are not a young Thai who tweets.
According to James Buchanan, a PhD Candidate at City University of Hong Kong’s Department of Asian and International Studies, Twitter is popular among South Korean youths, hence their social media behavior is transferred to Thai youths due to the shared love of K-pop.
But young people aren’t only interested in tear-jerking Korean soaps and flamboyant pop idols. They are also news savvy and have been active in consuming and sharing information on important stories, such as #กราดยิงโคราช (Korat mass shooting) or #ไวรัสโคโรน่าสายพันธุ์ใหม่2019 (Coronavirus 2019).
As well, young people are becoming more politically active, with controversial top trending hashtags that would make the conversative older generation gasp, #รัฐบาลเฮงซวย (government sucks) or #ขบวนเสด็จ (royal motorcade).
“As the country’s youth become more politicized, so too did those K-pop fans and other Thais on Twitter,” said Buchanan. He also explained that the alleged IO campaign against netizens does not come as a surprise, as every government around the world uses IO.
“What is regrettable in Thailand is that instead of focusing their intelligence capabilities on actual security issues, the government instead wastes energy — and taxpayers money — on monitoring decent citizens for voicing their opinion about politics in their country,” said Buchanan.
This is our safe space
Unlike Facebook, Twitter isn’t strict on private information. We don’t have to verify our names, while the 160-word bio is optional. In the world of Twitter, we are all free to be whoever we want, or so it seems.
“The only reason for me to choose Twitter over Facebook is so that I can rant about politics while remaining anonymous,” Twitter account @politicodoggo told Thisrupt (anonymity also extends to this article).
@politicodoggo used to express political views on Facebook, but family members gave warnings about it being “inappropriate, so he crossed the social media landscape into Twitter.
“Anonymity is probably one of the reasons for many to choose Twitter over Facebook,” he said. “They don’t have to risk losing jobs while exercising their rights to free speech.”
According to Statista, the number of active Twitter accounts in Thailand jumped from 2.7 millions in 2014 to 4.1 millions in 2019, nearly a 52% growth. This year, Thailand ranks 15th worldwide in number of Twitter accounts, out tweeting Malaysia and even South Korea.
In February this year, Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg took a step back from free speech and opened Facebook up for more regulations on “harmful online content”, saying it was not for companies like his to decide what counts as legitimate free speech.
Though the word “harmful” could be liberally interpreted.
Zuckerberg’s statement prompted criticisms, with many believing that it would allow for governments to interfere with free speech, especially in developing countries where governments are more dictatorial than democratic.
“I think the definition of ‘harmful content’ in the developing countries are different from developed ones. I’m curious whether Facebook understands circumstances in Thailand well enough,” said Twitter account @oRing9957651248.
It’s also worth noting that Twitter doesn’t have an office in Thailand at the moment, while Facebook does. Therefore, Facebook is more easily reached by the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society (MDES), who has made the war against “fake news” its top mission, monitoring social media through its Anti-Fake News Center.
Twitter account @tanktankytank said, “Due to Twitter’s very open and viral nature that allows messages to be thoroughly disseminated in mere hours, plus the number of anonymous users, it is too slow and costly for the government to interfere effectively.”
But really, no space is safe
Twitter may offer more privacy, but if the government wants to come after you, there’s no such thing as safe space.
In November last year, Twitter account @99CEREAL tweeted about her arrest and detention by the police for her post on the “royal motorcade” hashtag.
On February 20, over 10 police officers raided the home of Twitter account @ssj_2475, who has over 140,000 followers. He was arrested and detained for his alleged criticisms against the royal family, which the authorities said is “a very serious offense.” He was released on THB200,000 bail on Feb 24, after having been denied bail twice prior.
Through some 15 years of Thailand’s political struggles, the lese majeste law, Article 112, remains an important instrument of the state. Whether on Twitter or Facebook, the authorities continue to be vigilante.
Arguably, the most famous case involving social media is that of student activist Pai Daodin. In December 2016, he shared on Facebook a controversial article by BBC Thai on the monarchy. The court sentenced him to two years and six months imprisonment. He was released in May last year.
Another student activist, Karn Pongpraphapan, was arrested October 2019 for a Facebook post which, according to the authorities, “threatened the monarchy”. He was released on THB100,000 bail.
Politics aside, fake news also takes center stage
In January this year, a woman in Bangkok posted on her Facebook what later proved to be fake news about the virus Covid-19. Despite deleting the post at her own accord when she later learned it was fake, the police searched her home and took her into custody. She was “requested” to publicly apologize in a press conference and then released.
According to Buchanan, every country has laws and all countries limit freedom of speech to a certain extent. He said, “There’s usually a correlation between how healthy a country’s democracy is and how healthy that country’s freedom of speech is.”
In February last year, just ahead of the March 24 national election, the military government passed the cybersecurity law, which allows the National Cybersecurity Committee to track down any individual online that they feel is a threat to national security.
But the problem in Thailand is not because there are laws. In Thailand, the laws often get overused and misused. With the recent controversy over the military allegedly using IO to attack citizens, the space for free speech is fast disappearing.
“It’s always better to consider nothing online to be completely ‘safe’”, said Buchanan.