January 28, 2014 7:00 pm JST

Online misinformation over Thai protests spreads, on both sides

TAMAKI KYOZUKA, Nikkei staff writer

BANGKOK -- With increased political unrest in Thailand has come increased disinformation online. This is particularly prevalent on social networking services.

     Friday will mark three months since protests erupted in Bangkok between government supporters and those calling for Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's resignation.

     When there were political protests in 2010, there was little evidence of such online disinformation.

Worth how many words?     

In early January, a picture was put on Facebook that showed a whiteboard covered in notes and a picture of protest leader and former Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban. The whiteboard listed locations that demonstrators planned to take over in and around Bangkok, including major roads and even the main airport.

     The caption for the photo on the site said, "Everyone, let's act as planned."

     Suthep has repeatedly said that demonstrations under his leadership would not paralyze railways, airports or other public transport. But after the whiteboard photo was posted, many people expressed disappointment in anti-government demonstrators, accusing them of trying to throw transportation systems into confusion.

     A few days later, the demonstrators released a statement urging the public not to believe the authenticity of the photo. The statement added that the bogus whiteboard photo was posted by supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and that the airport has never been a target for demonstrations.

     Indeed, the airport remains unaffected to this day. But this online-based confusion has grown wider due to the dissemination of information posted on Twitter by people masquerading as anti-government protesters. This month alone, anti-government demonstrators have released four official statements just to dispel online rumors.

Stoked fears

The other side in these demonstrations has also been the victim of false information campaigns online.

     The United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, a political group founded by supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra and the current Thai government, has maintained that it holds gatherings outside Bangkok to garner support for the government while skipping those in the capital to avoid clashes with anti-government demonstrators. But one message posted online said that the UDD would hold gatherings at eight locations in Bangkok, including a major business district, to counter anti-government demonstrations.

     The message stirred fears of violent clashes as anti-government demonstrators had announced plans to seize the same locations. The message about the UDD's plans proved to be false, and members did not gather at these locations.

     Smartphone penetration in Thailand has reached around 30%, and the Line free calling and messaging service has 20 million registered users in the country, the second largest in the world after Japan. Such messaging services are being used by anti-government demonstrators to coordinate their massive protests.

     During the Arab Spring that started in 2011 in the Middle East, the Internet helped curb excessive government control of information and organize large demonstrations.

     With a general election scheduled for Feb. 2 in Thailand, the size, influence and effects of demonstrations, and the manipulation of information online, is expected only to grow.