Thailand’s protests highlight the vulnerabilities of major social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook.
Thai residents began protesting the nation’s military regime earlier this year, giving voice to frustrations that have been building since a 2014 coup. The protestors are using social media platforms to help organize their efforts, but while these platforms are relatively decentralized compared to traditional media outlets, they are still subject to government interference. Even as activists rely on these tools in their struggle against the government, they fear that those same platforms are being used against them.
Facebook has blocked access inside Thailand to a group that criticized Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun. The blocking of the group, which has over 1 million members, was at the request of Thai authorities. Now, Facebook is planning legal action against the Thai government to challenge the government’s request. Following the block, a new group criticizing the king swiftly appeared on the platform and has attracted at least 500,000 followers.
On Wednesday, Thailand’s digital minister Puttipong Punnakanta told Reuters that authorities will continue the internet crackdown, adding that if protesters create new groups the government will have them blocked too. The minister also said that Facebook had complied with all orders from Thai officials, and he did not see the social media giant going through with its plans to take legal action challenging the government’s request. (Thai officials did not respond to a request for comment by press time.)
Facebook is only part of the story, however. There are also questions about Twitter, a platform that has become central to the current movement. Some young Thai protesters are concerned Twitter might also be manipulated by Thailand’s military government, although they have not presented concrete evidence to support this.
The battle over social media is happening in the midst of unprecedented protests against the power of the Thai monarchy. Anti-government protests and rallies had taken place almost consistently since July, and on Aug. 16 at least 10,000 protesters called for the dissolution of Thailand’s military government and the reduction of the power of the King, a monarch who had previously been beyond criticism.
Thai protesters are trying to get their hashtags on Twitter’s trending list to bring global visibility to their cause. In the last 30 days, six popular hashtags related to the movement including #FreeYOUTH, #SaveParit, #SavePanusaya, #หยุดคุกคามประชาชน (stop oppressing people) and #ขีดเส้นตายไล่เผด็จการ (roughly translated as “Draw the line here. Junta has to go”) have altogether amassed over 10 million tweets, according to data obtained through Sprout Social.
These hashtags support both the overall movement and individual protestors who have been arrested by the government.
Two days before the Aug. 16 rally, police arrested prominent student activist Parit Chiwarak for sedition because of his involvement in the “Free Youth” movement back in July. Before him, two more activists were arrested on the same charges. On Aug. 13, rumors started spreading across social media that Chirawak might be arrested. Leading up to his arrest the next day, the hashtag #SaveParit was tweeted out over 2.6 million times.
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According to Midnight, a 17-year-old Thai student protester who uses a pseudonym because of safety concerns, Twitter is the preferred tool for young protestors. “The new generations in Thailand have Facebook accounts only for their relatives to see,” Midnight said in an email.
But Midnight and other protesters also worry the government is using social media platforms to manipulate trending topics and to monitor protesters. In fact, back in February, an activist who went by the user name “Niranam” or “Anonymous” on Twitter was arrested for inciting terrorism after he criticized the monarchy on the platform.
“We suspected that Twitter would reveal our identity to the government,” Midnight said.
Midnight was also concerned that a verified account set up in March 2020 called Twitter Thailand was tracking the activity of protesters on the platform.
The account’s bio says, “Welcome to the official Thailand Twitter account!”
Although the students have no proof this account is tracking their activity on Twitter, they still took action to protect themselves. Midnight blocked the account. Another student protester, 21-year-old university student Som, blocked it too. Some student activists like Midnight and Som appear on Twitter under aliases. Twitter did not immediately respond to CoinDesk’s request for comment.
“Most social media platforms are not that secure and we need to use other applications for chatting. It would be great if there is something similar to Twitter but as secure as Telegram,” Som said.
Call for Democracy
According to Som and Midnight, Thailand’s public is frustrated with its military government that came into power through a coup in 2014. Last year, King Vajiralongkorn issued a royal decree to bring two key army units under his control.
“The government had become so powerful (with their unfair constitution) and [uses] their power to arrest or even abduct people who disagree with them,” Som told CoinDesk via an email.
The protests against the regime gained new life this year when Thai youths and students joined the movement calling for democracy.
Brad Adams, Asia director for the Human Rights Watch, told CoinDesk that Thailand is a hierarchical society where young people are expected to bend to the will of adults. One catalyst in the recent protests, he said, was the sentiment among students that they no longer wanted to be told how to dress, or wear their hair or to be obedient.
“[The government is] hoping to turn parents against their children by appealing to their parents’ more conservative values to try to tell their kids to stay home and be quiet. But that doesn’t seem to be working,” Adams said.
The new political opposition, Adams added, was led by a younger generation of technophiles who connect better with the youth, and use technology in an effective and sophisticated way.
According to Som, the news about the protests mainly disseminated through social media and online platforms because there was little coverage on local TV or radio news. Thailand has a weak record on media freedom, ranking 140 out of 180 countries in the 2020 world Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders. The military government has generally exercised strict control over national broadcast networks. Recently, protesters accused local print and broadcast media of being “preoccupied with trivial matters” instead of covering the pro-democracy movement.
“There are even some news agencies that are so biased that they always say bad things about anti-government sides,” Som said.
Som felt that if the state was indeed targeting activists online, Facebook left protesters – who generally had some personal information displayed on their profiles – more vulnerable while Twitter allowed room for more anonymity.
But there is another reason why Twitter is attracting young protesters: trending hashtags.
Som and Midnight joined the other Thai activists online in a concerted effort to get hashtags related to the protests into Twitter’s trending lists by tweeting news posts with the tags repeatedly and in large numbers. For instance, the hashtag #หยุดคุกคามประชาชน (stop oppressing people) was tweeted an average of 110,272 times a day in the last month.
In Som’s view, if the hashtags got on the trending list, there was a higher chance the media would write about it.
“Even better, if it gets to the worldwide ‘trending’, it would start getting some interest from international media and the world,” Som said.
Som and other activists noticed something strange a couple of weeks ago: on Aug. 11, the day before Thai Queen Mother Sirikit’s birthday, the hashtag #คิดถึงยอดหฤทัยใจจะขาด (roughly translated to “missing my love so bad my heart is broken”) began trending on Twitter. The tag contained the first verse of a poem written for the Sirikit by her closest aide: There are rumors they had a complicated relationship, Som said.
The hashtag quickly rose to the top of Twitter’s local trending list for Thailand, until it mysteriously vanished from the list altogether. Twitter data show there were 654,351 tweets containing the hashtag on Aug. 11. On Aug. 12, the tag was sitting at #1 on the list, Som said. There were over 33,000 tweets with the tag. But by afternoon the tag was no longer on the list, Som said.
According to Adams, Thai authorities have been engaging in an organized effort to quell dissent on social media platforms.
“They mobilize people to attack protesters and activists online is a very organized attempt to intimidate and threaten political opponents. We don’t know but most likely a lot of people and bots are getting paid to do that. It’s a coordinated, fairly extensive programme to try to win the information war but win it in a dishonest way,” Adams said.
Som and Midnight also noticed similar trends with hashtags related to the protests, suddenly dropping ranks or falling out of trending lists.
According to angel investor and social media branding guru Dan Fleyshman, a social media platform can remove or censor any hashtag containing an expletive, and similarly, it can remove or throttle the reach of any hashtag quickly.
“The same way a government can request censorship/removal of a trending hashtag, they can also amplify a hashtag or specific post through paid media at scale. The government can also ask favors to their internal connections at the popular social media platforms, which can enhance the reach and spread propaganda,” Fleyshman said.
Twitter introduced a country-specific censorship initiative in 2012 to honor the “different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression” which allowed governments to request the “withholding” of tweets deemed culturally sensitive. Thailand was quick to publicly endorse the initiative.
But between 2012 and 2019, Thailand has only made six legal requests to Twitter with the aim of removing content, while for comparison, Saudi Arabia has made 765 requests in the same period.
According to Adams, unlike other countries that are shutting the internet down or using web disruptions to silence its public or control protests, Thailand most likely won’t resort to such measures. Thailand’s commerce depends on the internet, it’s a reasonably good investment destination and it has never been a country that has censored the internet, Adams said.
“I would imagine that if they were to censor the internet, they would start creating enemies among groups of people who right now are not enemies of the state and the government,” Adams said.
But in 2016, Thailand implemented the Computer-Related Crimes Act, which gave powers to the government to restrict free expression and take action against political opponents. The act also allowed the government to make the legal request to block the 1 million-strong Facebook group that criticized the monarchy.
Thai protestors are fighting to stay relevant among trending Twitter topics in the country, competing with promoted tags, or ones about gaming and Korean popular (K-pop) music. At 11:22 p.m. Thailand local time on August 24, the country’s 14th trending hashtag (with 57,400 people tweeting) was about an activist, Panupong Chadnok, who was arrested for a second time earlier in the day.
A screenshot sent by Som indicated the trending hashtags on Twitter in Thailand at 11:22 p.m. local time.
For Midnight and Som, the Twitter hashtag war and internet censorship are more reasons why they feel their country needs change. Social media like Twitter helps amplify their voices, but remain far from a completely trusted platform.
“There are at least 86 confirmed cases of forced disappearances of activists who spoke the truth. Thai people have been living in fear and poverty for years, and we are hiding our identity when we make comments about our country,” Midnight said.