On October 8, Twitter announced that it had suspended 926 accounts based in Thailand, for partaking in coordinated information operations on behalf of the Thai military. In a post on its website, the social media firm stated that the suspended Twitter profiles were part of a total of 1,594 accounts linked to “state-linked information operations” in countries that also included Russia, Cuba, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
“Our investigation uncovered a network of accounts partaking in information operations that we can reliably link to the Royal Thai Army (RTA),” the company stated. It added that the accounts were engaged in “amplifying pro-RTA and pro-government content, as well as engaging in behavior targeting prominent political opposition figures.”
The announcement comes in the midst of a gathering protest movement within Thailand, which is pushing for the resignation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, the drafting of a new constitution, and – most explosively – calls for reform of the Thai monarchy.
Twitter’s decision was taken following an investigation that it undertook in collaboration with the Stanford Internet Observatory (SIO). According to the SIO’s analysis, the network was used primarily to promote pro-government and pro-military positions and accounts on Twitter and to attack political opposition groups, particularly the banned Future Forward Party (FFP),which placed third at the last national elections.
The SIO describes a decidedly half-hearted campaign of influence. Of the 926 suspended Thai accounts, only 455 actively tweeted, producing a total of 21,385 tweets. The report added, “The accounts tended to rely on a few basic tactics, such as replying en masse with supportive messages to tweets from Army PR accounts and dog-piling onto tweets from opposition-aligned accounts.”
According to SIO’s analysis, most of the accounts were set up in late 2019 and early 2020, and most had ceased operations by March, not long after the FFP was disbanded on bogus legal grounds. Around that time, an FFP parliamentarian accused Prayut of coordinating a social media war against critics of the government and the military by spreading false news and damaging allegations.
Twitter’s announcement comes after Facebook last month removed two networks of accounts and pages for engaging in “coordinated inauthentic behavior” on behalf of a foreign government. One network was based in China, and targeted political disinformation at users in a number of countries, including the Philippines. Another was based in the Philippines, and targeted local Facebook users with memes and posts supportive of the Rodrigo Duterte administration and critical of left-wing opposition groups.
Similar patterns can also be observed in Myanmar. Just as I was writing this article, the magazine Frontier Myanmar published an investigation into a network of Facebook accounts disseminating false news and information designed to influence the country’s upcoming elections. Operating in the guise of a legitimate news outlet calling itself “Radio Free Myanmar,” the publication noted, the accounts spread disinformation, mostly about Rohingya Muslims and the ruling National League for Democracy.
These recent discoveries demonstrate the extent to which social media platforms, particularly Facebook, have become an important political battlefield in Southeast Asia. The region boasts four of the world’s top eight Facebook user bases, and as the popularity of these platforms have risen – particularly as an organizational vehicle for opposition political movements – so have the incentives for the region’s governments to manipulate them to political ends.
Even as they are pumping out sock puppet accounts that ventriloquize the official line, Southeast Asian governments have also stepped up efforts to pressure social media firms to block content that violates repressive local laws.
Last month, the Thai government announced that it was initiating legal action against Facebook, Twitter and Google for ignoring some requests to take down posts that breached local laws. While it did not specify exactly what laws had been violated, it is likely that the content involved criticism of the monarchy, which, under Thailand’s severe lese-majeste law, carries prison terms of up to 15 years.
Similarly, Vietnam’s government is currently putting the finishing touches on a controversial cybersecurity law, which will require firms like Facebook and Google to remove any content that the government deems “anti-state.” A Reuters investigation published in March revealed how Facebook began censoring content that the Vietnamese government deemed sensitive, after the latter took Facebook’s local servers offline, slowing traffic to a crawl.
Finally, some governments have simply gone after social media users, prosecuting them for dissenting comments posted on their accounts. Here, Vietnam has been a culprit, and the same tactic has also been pursued by the government in Cambodia, where Facebook helped catalyze an opposition surge at national elections in 2013.
None of this should come as a surprise in a region where so much of the public sphere has now migrated online. Given the increasing prominence of these social media platforms to civic and political life in Southeast Asia, the region’s governments will only deepen their efforts to control or co-opt them.