The student-led pro-democracy movement that promises to stage its largest protest yet in Bangkok Wednesday has used social media to fuel its growth. It will face off against a military-backed government that it seems couldn’t tweet its way out of a bag.
Twitter made worldwide headlines last week when it announced the takedown of 926 accounts it claimed were used by the Royal Thai Army to spread disinformation, amplifying pro-military and government propaganda and “targeting prominent political opposition figures”.
What went unsaid by the social network was how poor a job of it the men in green did.
The military’s campaign was a “relatively unsophisticated social media information operation with limited reach,” concluded Stanford Internet Observatory, a multidisciplinary Stanford University research group studying abuse of the internet, in an independent analysis of the archive of potential foreign information operations Twitter had given it early access to.
Calling the army’s online effort “cheerleading without fans”, SIO said the closed accounts “tended to rely on a few basic tactics such as replying en masse with supportive messages to tweets from Army PR accounts and dogpiling onto tweets from opposition-aligned accounts”.
The accounts were used, allegedly by people linked to the military, to wage an information battle against politicians and anti-government activists, beginning with networks that rallied before elections restored democracy-in-name-only in late 2019.
In several posts, the accounts mocked and insulted liberal politicians while lauding the government for its achievements even as the administration of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.
Many of the tweets also sought to downplay the army’s role in a massacre of civilians by a rogue army officer who gunned down 30 people and wounded 57 others during a rampage in February in Korat.
But most of the army-linked accounts had only a few followers and many had none, according to the SIO analysis. Some three-quarters of the accounts did not have identifiable users, a point to which the army latched on to deny its involvement or even desire to use such tactics.
“We confirmed to Twitter that we didn’t use the platform as alleged,” said army spokesman Lt. Gen. Santipong Thammapiya. “Our Twitter accounts are only used for public relations purposes and are openly identified with the army. We have no policy of using fake accounts for information operations.”
He said the link between the army and unverifiable accounts was “unjustified” and “unfair” to the army given that Twitter only had general information and did not do an “in-depth” analysis.
The oldest one of the accounts was set up on May 27 in 2014, just five days after the coup against the Yingluck Shinawatra government.
Of course, this was the first time the military has come under fire for its online antics. In February, MP Wiroj Lakkhanaadisorn of the then-Future Forward Party, accused Prayut of conducting disinformation ops to attack opposition candidates after an army whistleblower leaked docuemnts and interviews.
The Twitter archive did indeed include tweets that criticized Future Forward, whose platform called for slashing the military budget and placing it under civilian control.
The party was disbanded on Feb. 21 by the Constitutional Court on charges trumped up by the Prayut’s military-backed government.
The government has never made a secret its concerns about the pro-democracy fervor building online that exploded this year in the rise of the current student-led pro-democracy movement.
Amendments to the Computer Crime Act in 2016 gave the government power to remove or suspend any websites deemed a threat to national security or “offensive to good morals” without a court order. Service providers who fail to comply are subject to criminal charges.
Despite its ineffectiveness, the fact that such a concerted online disinformation campaign was mounted at all worried and outraged government critics, even if it didn’t entirely surprise them.
The ignorant and naïve may shrug their shoulders, claiming all governments do the same, but the fact is that democratic governments are not supposed mount such operations against their own people. It’s notable that other regimes Twitter also called out included Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia.
That Thailand, which purportedly is a democracy, was grouped with authoritarians and dictators, only underscores the need for changes that will be demanded from the stage tomorrow.
This story contains reporting from UCA News, a Bangkok Herald partner.