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Turbulent Thailand

Twitter bans 926 accounts linked to Thai military manipulation

Pro-democracy congressman argues soldiers should be prosecuted ahead of big protests

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BANGKOK -- Twitter has pointed a finger at Thailand as violating its platform manipulation policies by conducting state-backed information operations.

The internet giant announced the permanent suspension of 926 accounts that it could reliably link to the Royal Thai Army (RTA). "These accounts were engaged in amplifying pro-RTA and pro-government content, as well as engaging in behavior targeting prominent political opposition figures," Twitter wrote on Thursday. The social media giant said it will continue to identify and act against small-scale activity associated with the Thai network.

In the same disclosure, Twitter said it had suspended 668 other accounts attributed to Russia, Cuba, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The Thai military denied its involvement. "The Royal Thai Army has not used social media accounts in the manner alleged by Twitter," said spokesman Lt. Gen. Santipong Thammpiya. "A thorough examination needs to be conducted on all suspended accounts," he added.

"It seems that the link between the Royal Thai Army and the unverifiable accounts may be unjustified and unfair to the army," Deputy spokesperson Col. Sirichan Ngathong claimed, "given that it only processes general information and lacks in-depth analysis."

In October 2018, Twitter launched the industry's first archive of potential foreign information operations that it had seen on its service. Thursday's disclosure was the 10th of its kind. Thailand was the fourth Asian country to be named in the archive, after China, Bangladesh and Indonesia.

The effectiveness of the operations was questionable, according to an independent investigation conducted by the Stanford Internet Observatory, a multidisciplinary Stanford University research group studying the abuse of the internet. Twitter shared early access to the archive with the group. The observatory described the operations as "cheerleading without fans."

"This was a relatively unsophisticated social media information operation with limited reach," said the Stanford Internet Observatory in its report. "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 dogpiling onto tweets from opposition-aligned accounts."

This was not the first time the Royal Thai Army's online information operations have come under the spotlight. During a censure debate in parliament in February 2020, Wiroj Lakkhanaadisorn, a member of the Future Forward Party, accused Prime Minister and Defense Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha of conducting information operations to attack opposition candidates. He based his accusation on leaked documents and interviews with a whistleblower from the army.

According to the Stanford Internet Observatory report, the removed accounts engaged in a domestic information operation that criticized Future Forward, whose main policies were slashing the military's budget and making sure it was under civilian control. The party was disbanded on Feb. 21 by a verdict from the Constitutional Court.

The Thai government has not hidden its concerns over how public opinion is shaped on the web. Amendments made in 2016 in Thailand's Computer Crime Act under the military government allowed it to remove or suspend any websites deemed a threat to national security or offensive to good morals, without court approval. Service providers that fail to comply with removal or suspension orders are subject to penalties.

The Ministry of Digital Economy and Society has asked providers including Twitter, YouTube and Facebook to remove a few thousand "illegal" posts and accounts. Claiming their actions had been insufficient, Digital Economy and Society Minister Buddhipongse Punnakanta on Sept. 25 filed a complaint with the technology crime suppression police to prosecute those internet giants.

Social media have played an important role in recent youth-led protests. As children of the internet age with wider access to information, young adults exchanged views online on why their country has had 20 constitutions and 13 successful coups since 1932. Accounts of injustice, violence and abuse of power were shared instantly online, whereas in the past they were often kept under wraps.

People's Party 2020, an association of known student activist groups, will stage a mass rally at Democracy Monument in the administrative heart of Bangkok on Oct. 14.

"The people who should be prosecuted with sedition charge are not the students and the people who campaign for democracy, but the group of soldiers who deploy information operations to incite division," Wiroj, who is now a member of Future Forward's successor, the Move Forward Party, wrote on Twitter after Thursday's disclosure.

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