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Turbulent Thailand

Facebook removes Thai army-linked pages targeting restive South

Social media giant says military used fake accounts; its ban follows Twitter's

Facebook has removed accounts linked to the Thai army for spreading false information that could incite trouble in the country's southern provinces. (Source photo by AFP/Jiji) 

BANGKOK -- Facebook became the second social media company after Twitter to remove accounts it suspected were linked to the Thai military, taking down a total of 185 pages and groups, including those on Instagram, for perpetuating false information that could stir up trouble in its restive south.

Facebook took down 77 accounts, 72 pages, 18 groups and 18 Instagram accounts, it said Wednesday.

"Although the people behind it attempted to conceal their identities and coordination, our investigation found links to the Thai Military's Internal Security Operations Command," Facebook said in a statement.

Its Head of Security Policy Nathaniel Gleicher tweeted: "It [The military] used fake accounts posing as individuals from the southern provinces of Thailand to criticize separatist movements and support the monarchy and military."

On Thursday, Prime Minister and Defense Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said he ordered the Ministry of Defense to investigate Facebook's claims.

The three Muslim-majority provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat at the Thai border with Malaysia are known collectively as the Deep South. The rest of Thailand is majority Buddhist. This region has been the center of a separatist movement that had sporadically flared up in violence over the last 70 years or so.

That conflict has intensified since 2004 after former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra labeled Malay-Muslim insurgents as "mostly bandits," inciting human rights abuses against them by the police and military. This in turn led to a well-organized attack on an army camp in Narathiwat.

The attack motivated Thaksin to declare martial law in the three provinces, which to this day has yet to be lifted. Over the last 16 years to Feb. 15, according to the Deep South Watch Database, 7,215 people have died as a result of this conflict.

Facebook's move was triggered by calls for violence against insurgents and false information that such groups had engaged in violence by the network of accounts, pages and groups it banned. Those accounts also expressed support for the military and the monarchy, and criticized the separatist movement.

"They also posted their content on multiple pages to make it appear more popular than it was," the internet giant said. The company said most of the posts were made in 2020.

The network had spent about $350 on Facebook and Instagram advertisements. About 703,000 accounts followed one or more of these removed pages. About 100,000 accounts joined at least one of these groups and around 2,500 people followed one or more of the Instagram accounts.

In October 2020, Twitter announced the permanent ban of 926 accounts that it could reliably link to the Royal Thai Army. According to the internet giant, the accounts amplified pro-army and pro-government content, and targeted prominent political opposition figures. The army denied its involvement.

In recent reports, Facebook also named two networks in Iran, one in Morocco and another in Russia as manipulators of information. The Russian network relied on fake accounts to post critical or irrelevant content with hashtags associated with protests that backed Alexei Navalny, the imprisoned opposition leader and anti-corruption activist.

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