In Thailand, the Defense Council, chaired by the interim Deputy Prime Ministry and Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, recently announced it would step up legal actions against “people behind the dissemination of malicious fake news and information,” which may have “an impact on national security or damage a particular organization’s reputation.” This call is, in fact, the continuation of cyber warfare the military regime has persistently waged against challengers of its propaganda.
Identifying what is considered “fake news” has become a political weapon for authoritarian consolidation after the 2014 military coup. The regime has relentlessly accused its critics of spreading false information while claiming that it is the only official source of true facts. In response, it has imposed a string of laws to curb any “misleading information” that it deems as potentially undermining its rule. Further, the government and its security apparatus have encouraged citizens to monitor and report to the authorities any “culprits” who spread anti-regime messages on social media. The regime’s cyber troops then tweak those facts against the pro-democracy dissidents as part of its battle for the hearts and minds of the public.
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These information wars have been going on for decades. In 2005, the political establishment (dubbed “yellow shirts,” comprising the Palace, army, bureaucrats, allied business, and Bangkok middle class) relied on street demonstrations to voice their resentment against the former Prime Minister and media tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra and his allegedly populist “red shirt” party. The yellow shirts’ media mouthpieces, such as ASTV, the TV channel owned by Thaksin’s rival, Sondhi Limthongkul, broadcasted the demonstrations day in and day out, kickstarting an era of hate campaigns to achieve protest mobilization.
Ousted by the 2006 coup, Thaksin’s party led the counter red shirt movement (consisting of “pro-poor” but potentially autocratic politicians, their rural constituents, and pro-democracy civic groups) as an anti-traditional elite crusade.
The red shirt protests were staged and televised nationwide with views expressed openly and anonymously mostly on web boards (internet sites where users can post messages, tutorials, information, and topics for discussion) and other social media sites. These posts, including countless scandals involving the traditional elites, were leaked and considered to be an unprecedented transgression that threatened the military regime.
Politicizing “Fake News”: Censorship and Cyber Vigilantism
In 2006, the regime’s Computer Crime Act authorized state agencies to block internet content it deemed to be misinformation or undermining national security, public morals, and public order. In parallel, the legal sentence for breaches of the lèse majesté (offenses against the monarchy) law became harsher, specifically targeting online offenders.
An emerging trend has been the mobilization of royalist “netizens” who are encouraged to monitor online activities that disseminate what the authorities viewed as “fake news” tarnishing public images of the traditional elites.
Security elements within the military and its royalist and civilian supporters once set up online monitoring groups such as the Social Sanction (SS) and Rubbish Collection Organization (RCO). These sites would share the personal profiles of alleged lèse majesté offenders on their Facebook pages for public bullying. These supposed offenders were reported to the police, and if no legal action followed, royalist citizens were mobilized to taunt the offenders at their private residences. At its peak, the SS Facebook page had more than 30,000 likes, and about 50 people were known to be bullied. The RCO has more than 300,000 “likes” on its Facebook page. Other royalist Facebook pages that served similar functions of surveillance and dissent trolling also proliferated.
This cyber repression and vigilante tactics against “false information” intensified after the 2014 coup. The junta claimed that its seizure of power was necessary as Thailand was on the verge of civil war between the red and yellow shirts. Accordingly, it moved to censor information that reinforced social divide, criticized military rule, and defamed the Palace. Recently, the Army Cyber Center was set up to suppress any information the junta considers to be distorted. This includes any facts it considers to be critical of its policies, with the claim that people have shared those without any “fact-checking.” In place of what it considers “fake,” the junta has authorized “true” facts that convey the “correct” understanding of the regime to its official news outlets. Critics who are believed to have a published a “wrong” attitude have been summoned to an army camp for an “attitude adjustment.”
Despite a rumor that the junta has employed high technology surveillance, crackdowns on lèse majesté breaches and “subversive” activities in cyber space have consistently been facilitated by citizen vigilantism. Facebook pages of groups such as the Network of Volunteer Citizens to Protect the Monarchy and the Anti-Ignorance Association have reported online violations of lèse majesté law.
The best organized and funded of the regimes’ anti-false information groups is the Cyber Scouts, who were founded in 2010 and operate under the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society. The Scouts befriend suspected subversives on Facebook and start conversations about sensitive issues. If and when a violation of lèse majesté law occurs, they report the alleged criminals to the authorities.
As of 2016, more than 120,000 students have been recruited as Cyber Scouts, and the number looks to double in the near future. The Scouts offer training workshops for high school and university students across Thailand.
In addition to monitoring, well-intended citizens and vigilante groups take part in “cyber trolling” of critical media, activists, and dissidents. Anti-regime protesters are often disparaged as “Thaksin lackeys” or red shirt “traitors” and “terrorists.” Doctored images, sometimes containing obscene and sexist descriptions, are shared in like-minded Facebook pages to demonize dissidents. And interviews or speeches by those “dissidents” are “misquoted” to highlight their political partisanship with Thaksin, and disloyalty toward the Palace. Leading figures of the contentious Future Forward Party are the latest targets of these vicious online attacks.
The government and the army also claim that internationally supported NGOs are joining forces with Western powers to bring about regime change and regional hegemony. These storylines are amplified by right-wing online media outlets such as T–News and Deep News, the comment sections of which are inflated with hateful messages and threats to physically harass those deemed “liberal garbage.”
While some of the comments on social media stem from genuine “yellow shirt” supporters, many originate in numerous royalist Facebook pages that have sprung up after the coup. These pages link to one another and circulate the same news reports and anti-red shirt “memes.” Trolling methods and political frames against potential threats to the political establishment resonate with the broader propaganda of the government and the army.
“Fake News,” Authoritarian Regime, and Social Divide
The Thai junta’s classification of truthfulness and falsehood has enabled it to claim to be the sole arbiter of truth, while those who challenge their edicts are said to spread “lies.” However, because Thailand has become deeply polarized, the regime’s rhetoric only convinces those Thais who uphold the traditional institutions and norms. Meanwhile, a large part of the population has become increasingly skeptical, seeking a different political order. The “red-yellow” conflicts have brought to the fore this clash of the two political aspirations and perspectives.
At the peak of the conflicts, both sides relied on fabricated “facts” to undermine the credibility or “dehumanize” the other side. The junta exploits and worsens this divide by selectively clamping down on red shirt activists and anyone who espouses views unfriendly to their viewpoint. Meanwhile, those voices that share the regime’s stance are spared and sometimes given the green light to surveil and bully its critics.
Tackling the problem of “fake news,” in an authoritarian and divided society such as Thailand, may need to go beyond separating the fake from the real. Deeply polarized societies struggle to agree on what constitutes commonly agreed on political reality. Nonetheless, it remains possible to create a dialogue across different political camps by looking toward a shared political future. While competing political visions are encouraged, advocates of these visions are suggested to imagine together what would work best for Thailand’s future generation. This process implies participatory imagination is more important to the future than political truths.
Janjira Sombatpoonsiri, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor in International Relations at Bangkok’s Thammasat University. She is currently an Associate Fellow at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies, and an academic advisor for the Washington-based International Center for Nonviolent Conflict.