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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

Facebook Down Again? Chill as The World Has Not Ended Yet

Joining the outages, Twitter’s dashboard TweetDeck went down on July 2 in Europe and the US before it was restored later

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FILE - The Facebook logo is seen on a shop window in Malaga, Spain, June 4, 2018. (VOA)

By Radhika Parashar

Imagine this: All of your favourite social media apps such as Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Snapchat and Twitter have stopped working for an unspecified time period. Are you anxious, nervous or still a relaxed soul?

This year has seen several incidences where everyday apps faced major outages running into several hours in India. To the respite of users, they had Twitter to fall back upon as it was the only app functioning most of the time.

“Outages make us realise how much do we actually depend on Internet and apps. People even have apps that remind them it is time to drink water. And if these apps stop working, one can imagine the plight. Social media outages make me uncomfortable and restless,” Deepansh Jain, a 21-year-old college student from Mumbai, told IANS.

Managing a global user-base of over 2.38 billion people, Facebook and its family of apps, including photo-messaging app Instagram and WhatsApp, have collectively suffered five major outages in the last four months. Out of all the Facebook’s apps, Instagram experiences downtime the most.

On March 14, Facebook apps recorded their longest ever 12-hour outage. While people speculated possibilities of cyber attacks, the social networking giant denied the speculation and blamed “server reconfiguration” for its app blackout.

Following Facebook, in the last four months, Google services like Gmail, Maps and Calendar also broke down three times for users worldwide.

On June 3, Google apps such as YouTube, Gmail and Nest along with Snapchat and other web services stopped working for users in the US and Europe for four hours. As the company promised to probe the issue, a service disruption caused a three-hour long Google Calendar outage globally.

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Facebook, Messenger and Instagram apps are displayed on an iPhone, March 13, 2019, in New York. VOA

“App outages are scary. Personally, I instantly start fearing worst-case scenarios like if my account has been hacked. I just go blank,” said Sheena Sharma, 25, from Bengaluru.

Not just social networking apps, other Internet-backed services like voice assistants are also vulnerable to outages. On May 16, Amazon’s voice assistant Alexa suffered outage in the US for undisclosed reasons.

Throughout the outage period, when users asked Alexa for assistance, it replied: “Sorry. I’m having trouble. Please try in a little while”.

Also Read- Researchers Develop an Algorithm to Predict Storms, Cyclones

Joining the outages, Twitter’s dashboard TweetDeck went down on July 2 in Europe and the US before it was restored later.

The outage report said there were “issues at TweetDeck”, with nearly 400 complaints just within 20 minutes. Down Detector said there were “problems at Twitter”.

“While all apps have faced outages, Twitter still holds the forte and brings people from across the world to vent out their frustration on its platform. As soon as any of the apps stop working, I immediately check Twitter if it is just me or an actual blackout has happened,” said Aayushi Aglawe, a 23-year-old media intern from Pune. (IANS)