By Jintamas Saksornchai and Todd Ruiz
BANGKOK — First it was a photo of tanks on the move. Then came word that riot police were being urgently mobilized somewhere. Soon, coup fever was gripping the kingdom and trending atop Thai Twitter.
The ambiguous reports – based on a genuine photo, leaked document and forged order, that fueled an explosion of coup rumors earlier this month was a made-for-social media moment. A tangle of truths, half-truths and falsehoods, it was the kind of mess vexing tech platforms have been struggling – and often failing – to handle in the age of online disinformation.
With Thailand in its first election cycle in five years, the swarm of provocative news is gaining momentum. The false coup alarm drew swift junta demands the perpetrators be prosecuted. It came less than a week after a prime minister candidate accused a pro-junta Facebook group of digitally inserting into a damning video clip that spread over messaging app Line. On Thursday, a complaint was filed over an online report the junta leader plans to extend military conscription another two years.
And they’re unlikely to be the last episodes before March 24 – or after. Khaosod English reached out to Facebook, Line and Twitter to find out how they’ve secured their platforms against disinformation at a time ripe for sowing confusion and division among the public.
Twitter Singapore didn’t respond to inquiries, and Line refused to answer questions, saying vaguely that it would “follow rules and regulations including providing collaboration to related organizations.”
Facebook, which has experienced a collapse in trust ever since “fake news” entered the political lexicon, offered the most details. The company says it has fielded Thai-language screeners to review content, partnered with a domestic fact checker and turned its sights on education Thai netizens.
Because algorithms lack the necessary nuance, Facebook says its efforts still rely heavily on human eyes. It declined to say how many Thai-language content screeners it has employed directly or through contractors but said it has 15,000 “dedicated content reviewers” worldwide.
This month it has temporarily blocked any ads originating outside of Thailand that refer to “politicians, parties, ‘getting out the vote,’ and/or election suppression” domestically in run-up to Election Day.
The company also referenced an election workshop held earlier this month for Thai news organizations, though it was mostly used to promote the use of its products, including an hour-long tutorial on creating Instagram stories.
Facebook’s approach “includes finding and removing bad actors, blocking or removing fake accounts, limiting the spread of false news and misinformation, and bringing unprecedented transparency to political advertising,” the company said in a statement. “We have teams working on all upcoming elections in Asia-Pacific, including Thailand.”
Though the company provided few details about specific resources put in place, it said it plans to “set up new regional operations centers, focused on election integrity, including one in Singapore,” while working “closely with lawmakers, election commissions, fact-checkers, researchers, academics and civil society groups” to fight misinformation and deter voter suppression efforts.
Though light on details, Facebook did disclose that it has partnered with the Thai News Agency’s “Sure and Share Center” fact-checking program to expand its ability to help Thais spot falsehoods and disinformation.
Peerapon Anutarasoat, who has produced and hosted the program since its launch in 2015, said he was thankful for the opportunity to work with Facebook and reiterated the importance in building an informed society.
“I wanted to thank them for applying what they’ve learned from the phenomena that’s happened in many countries for the benefit of Thailand during the election,” he said. “They might also be able to learn new things from here as well.”
The company said it plans to follow up by promoting digital literacy in the kingdom this year through unspecified measures.
The kingdom’s populace is among the world’s most active on social media. In 2017, Thailand’s 49 million Facebook users ranked eighth in the world per capita. In the same year, it had 12 million Twitter users and more than 42 million Line users.
Line can be an especially pernicious vector given that the usual mechanisms for self-correction don’t work. Rumors can spread widely on a peer-to-peer basis without ever seeing sunlight.
It’s that reason that makes increasing the public’s online savviness important.
“Campaigning to increase people’s [media literacy] will make a positive impact, especially in the long run,” Peerapon said. “The more people are informed, the more resources we will have reserved to strengthen our mission instead of just chasing after fake news, case by case.”
The Election Commission has cited disinformation for its decision to regulate social media for the first time.
Many have raised concerns that the commission’s regulations open the way for the authorities to censor and remove content they don’t like. Skepticism over free and fair elections has reached a boil after questionable moves to redraw the electoral map, disband parties and shut down critical broadcasting media.
As for government attempts – successful or not – to censor or remove content, Facebook insisted it is “transparent,” yet it only publishes raw numbers without detail. Those numbers show that requests from the Thai government hit a new peak during the last reporting period.
According to election commissioner Charungwith Phumma, his body has asked for social media platforms’ “cooperation” to remove “damaging content” when it is found. He did not elaborate on the criteria.
Google’s publishes a transparency report that likewise consists only of raw numbers, but identifies for “reasons.” It also found a surge in requests from the Thai government, with 150 removal requests in the first half of 2018, more than three times higher than the same period a year before. Ninety-seven percent of the requests were over “government criticism.”
Facebook insisted that it will only remove content that violates its safety standards, while content violating a nation’s laws would only be made unavailable in that country.
The platform’s report says 283 items found to violate the local lese-majeste law were restricted upon Thai request between January and June of last year. It’s unclear how many items in Thailand had been removed.
The Election Commission’s new rules, such as requiring candidates notify it before they campaign on social media, have sparked criticism they will quash free and open debate and discourage candidates from using the platforms to reach voters.
Political science professor Naruemon Thabchumpon said it will have a huge impact, especially on the estimated 6 million first-time voters.
“The people who use social media are the younger generations,” she said. “The question for Thailand is how to attract these people to leave their online world and go out to vote … because social media can spur popularity among them.”
She thinks the commission shouldn’t only focus on going after those who use social media for political purposes but also try do more proactive engagement to get the right information out to the public as fast and widely as possible to counter disinformation.