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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)

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Governments Around The World are Learning to Confuse Dissidents on Social Media

The researchers, who published their findings in a recent issue of Political Science Research and Methods, specifically examined social media from both the Venezuela regime and its opposition

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Social Media
The regime also seemed to develop a more sophisticated approach to using hashtags on Social Media. The regime used long hashtags, as opposed to the shorter hashtags that are more commonly used, to promote distraction among the protest groups. Pixabay

Governments the world over are learning new tactics to quash dissent on various Social Media platforms, responding with tweets designed to distract and confuse like longer hashtags, according to a team of political scientists.

In a study of Twitter interactions during Venezuela’s 2014 protests, in which citizens voiced opposition to government leaders and called for improvements to their standard of living, the tweets of the protesters focused mainly on the protest itself, while the tweets issued by the ruling regime covered more diverse topics.

This could mean that regimes are growing more savvy in their use of social media to help suppress mass movements.

“When we started doing this study there had been a lot of optimism about the capacity of social media to produce revolutions throughout the world, like Arab Spring and the Color Revolutions in Europe,” said Kevin Munger, assistant professor of political science and social data analytics, Penn State.

“But it seems like, in hindsight, this was the result of short-term disequilibrium between the capacity of the masses to use this technology and the limited capacity of these elites to use it.”

A lot of these elites may have not been keeping up with modern communication technology and got caught unawares.

So, for that short period of time, social media did produce better outcomes for revolutions and mass movements.

The researchers, who published their findings in a recent issue of Political Science Research and Methods, specifically examined social media from both the Venezuela regime and its opposition.

Social Media
Governments the world over are learning new tactics to quash dissent on various Social Media platforms, responding with tweets designed to distract and confuse like longer hashtags, according to a team of political scientists. Pixabay

Following the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in early 2013, Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s vice-president, won a special election.

After his election, mass protests erupted related to economic decline and increased crime.

In their analysis, the researchers noted that the regime abruptly shifted its Twitter strategy after protests swept across the country.

The topics of the regime’s tweets became even more diverse than usual — including such topics as a tree-planting event — and often did not address the protests at all.

As the protests continued, however, the researchers said that the opposition also became less focused, which the researchers suggest may have been a reaction to the regime’s social media strategy.

The way that attention works on social networks offers a glimpse into why the strategy to distract citizens might be effective, added Munger, who worked on the study while a doctoral student in politics at New York University.

Social Media
Regimes are growing more savvy in their use of Social Media to help suppress mass movements. Pixabay

“To have effective protests, you need to have a ton of people coordinated on a single message, so spreading other narratives disrupts that process of coordination,” said Munger.

“Being able to spread doubt is effective. You don’t have to get people to love your regime, you just need people to less convinced of the single narrative.”

ALSO READ: President of Egypt Calls for Collective Action Against Countries Supporting Terrorism

The regime also seemed to develop a more sophisticated approach to using hashtags. The regime used long hashtags, as opposed to the shorter hashtags that are more commonly used, to promote distraction among the protest groups. (IANS)