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Authorities Scroll Through Social Media Violations Of Laws Restricting Political Parties, As It Forms Thailand’s Election “War Room”

"Combating false news is crucial to the integrity and safety of the Thailand elections," said Katie Harbath, Facebook's Global Politics and Government director, during a Bangkok visit in January.

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Government staff work as they monitor social media in a social media war room in Bangkok, Thailand, March 8, 2019. VOA

In Thailand’s election “war room,” authorities scroll through thousands of social media posts, looking for violations of laws restricting political parties’ campaigning on social media that activists say are among the most prohibitive in the world.

The monitors are on the look-out for posts that “spread lies, slander candidates, or use rude language,” all violations of the new electoral law, said Sawang Boonmee, deputy secretary-general of the Election Commission, who gave a Reuters team an exclusive tour of the facility.

When they find an offending post, on, for example, Facebook, they print it out, date-stamp it, and file it in a clear plastic folder, to be handed over to the Election Commission and submitted to Facebook for removal.

“When we order content to be removed, we’ll reach out to the platforms, and they are happy to cooperate with us and make these orders efficient,” Sawang said.

Sawang Boonmee, deputy secretary-general of Election Commission talks as he works in a social media war room in Bangkok, Thailand, March 8, 2019.
Sawang Boonmee, deputy secretary-general of Election Commission talks as he works in a social media war room in Bangkok, Thailand, March 8, 2019.

Sawang said the tough electoral laws governing social media for the March 24 election, the first since a 2014 military coup, are a necessary innovation aimed at preventing manipulation that has plagued other countries’ elections in recent years.

“Other countries don’t do this. Thailand is ahead of the curve with regulating social media to ensure orderly campaigning and to protect candidates,” he said.

A Facebook representative said it reviewed requests from governments on a case-by-case basis.

“We have a government request process, which is no different in Thailand than the rest of the world,” the representative said.

Twitter did not respond to a request for comment.

Democracy advocates, worry the social media restrictions laid out by the military government may be impeding parties from freely campaigning.

The rules require that candidates and parties register social media handles and submit a post to the commission, stating what platform it will appear on and for how long.

Parties and candidates are only allowed to discuss policies, and posts that are judged to be misleading voters or that portray others negatively could see the party disqualified, or a candidate jailed for up to 10 years and banned from politics for 20.

Government staff work as they monitor social media in a social media war room in Bangkok, Thailand, March 8, 2019.
Government staff work as they monitor social media in a social media war room in Bangkok, Thailand, March 8, 2019. VOA

Pongsak Chan-on, coordinator of the Bangkok-based Asia Network for Free and Fair Election (ANFREL), said the rules go far beyond combating “fake news” and raise questions about how free and fair the election will be.

“The rules are stricter than in any recent elections anywhere. They’re so detailed and strict that parties are obstructed,” he told Reuters.

‘Doesn’t Bode Well for Democracy’

The monitoring center, with a signboard reading “E-War Room,” has three rows of computers and stacks of printouts, with half a dozen workers spending eight hours a day searching for violations of the law.

Sawang said another intelligence center scanned for violations 24 hours a day but it was “off-limits” to media.

The election is broadly seen as a race between the military-backed prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, and parties that want the military out of politics.

But the stringent rules have left anti-junta parties fretting about how to campaign online, nervous that they could inadvertently break a rule that triggers disqualification.

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha arrives to deliver a keynote speech at the opening ceremony of "National Fund to Reduce Inequalities" ahead of the general election, in Bangkok, Thailand, March 18, 2019.
Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha arrives to deliver a keynote speech at the opening ceremony of “National Fund to Reduce Inequalities” ahead of the general election, in Bangkok, Thailand, March 18, 2019. VOA

Up to now, the new rules have not been used to disqualify any candidates though the very threat has had a dampening effect and encouraged self-censorship.

“They create complications for parties,” said Pannika Wanich, spokeswoman for the new Future Forward Party, which has attracted support among young urban folk who have come of age on social media.

She said her party had to consult a legal team before making posts.

Some candidates have deactivated their Facebook pages while others have removed posts that might cause trouble.

Last month, Future Forward leader Thanathorn Juangroonruangkit faced disqualification over an allegation that he misled voters in his biography on the party’s website. The commission dismissed the case last week.

A woman casts her early vote for the upcoming Thai election at a polling station in Bangkok, Thailand, March 17, 2019.
A woman casts her early vote for the upcoming Thai election at a polling station in Bangkok, Thailand, March 17, 2019. VOA

In another petition, the commission was asked to ban the party’s secretary-general for slandering the junta in a Facebook post.

“It’s very restrictive and doesn’t bode well for democracy,” said Tom Villarin, a Philippine congressman and member of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR). “Putting more restrictions on social media during a campaign season defeats the purpose of holding elections in the first place.”

Fighting Fake News

About 74 percent of Thailand’s population of 69 million are active social media users, putting Thais among the world’s top 10 users, according to a 2018 survey by Hootsuite and We Are Social.

Thailand is Facebook’s eighth biggest market with 51 million users, the survey showed.

Facebook said it has teams with Thai-language speakers to monitor posts and restricts electoral advertisements from outside the country.

Also Read: Renowned Job Seeking Platform LinkedIn Announces Word “Disruption” As Most Over Used Buzzword

“Combating false news is crucial to the integrity and safety of the Thailand elections,” said Katie Harbath, Facebook’s Global Politics and Government director, during a Bangkok visit in January.

Sawang said the election commission has also gained cooperation from Twitter and Japanese messaging app Line, used by 45 million Thais.

Line Thailand told Reuters it did not monitor chats for the election commission but helped limit fake news by showing only articles from “trusted publishers” on its news feature. (VOA)

Next Story

Here’s Why Sri Lanka Does not Trust Social Media Platforms

Sri Lanka temporarily shut down Facebook earlier in 2018 after hate speech spread on the company’s apps resulted in mob violence

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Sri Lankan military officials stand guard in front of the St. Anthony's Shrine, Kochchikade church after an explosion in Colombo, Sri Lanka, April 21, 2019. VOA

Battling the spread of hate speech on social media platforms especially Facebook for long, the Sri Lanka government on Sunday once again “temporarily blocked” social media from spreading fake news in the wake of deadly suicide bombings in the island that killed 290 people.

In a brief statement, the Sri Lankan President’s Secretary Udaya Seneviratne said the government has “decided to temporarily block social media sites including Facebook and Instagram in an effort to curb false news reports”.

Several users in the country reported they could not access Facebook and its photo-sharing service Instagram, Google-owned YouTube and WhatsApp for most part of the day.

Facebook spokesperson Ruchika Budhraja told TechCrunch that “teams from across Facebook have been working to support first responders and law enforcement as well as to identify and remove content which violates its standards”.

Google did not immediately comment.

“It’s a rare but not unprecedented step for a government to block access to widely used sites and services,” said the report.

Sri Lanka has been criticizing Facebook and its platforms for long when it comes to the spread of hate speech.

The island country in March ordered Internet and mobile service providers to temporarily block Facebook and its subsidiaries WhatsApp and Instagram as part of a crackdown on online hate speeches.

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Multiple apps are displayed on an iPhone in New York. VOA

“These platforms are banned because they were spreading hate speeches and amplifying them,” government spokesperson Harindra B. Dassanayake was quoted as saying in The New York Times.

The claims are supported by non-profit Freedom House which found “hate speech against minorities continues to foment on various social media platforms, particularly Facebook”.

Last May, a coalition of activists from eight countries, including India, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, called on Facebook to put in place a transparent and consistent approach to moderation.

Activists argued that the lack of local moderators a” specifically moderators fluent in the Sinhalese language spoken by the country’s Buddhist majority — had allowed hate speech run wild on the platform.

Also Read- Decide on TikTok by Wednesday, or Ban Ends: SC

The coalition demanded civil rights and political bias audits into Facebook’s role in abetting human rights abuses, spreading misinformation and manipulation of democratic processes in their respective countries.

Sri Lanka temporarily shut down Facebook earlier in 2018 after hate speech spread on the company’s apps resulted in mob violence. (IANS)