During the televised censure debate on Tuesday, MP Wiroj Lakkhanaadisorn of the dissolved Future Forward Party shocked viewers with his revelation about information operations (IO) allegedly run by the state against critics of the government, supporters of the opposition and activists. What was particularly revealing was that he backed up his claim with official documents.
He exposed what appears to be state-sponsored information warfare against the people whose tax money has been used to pay for the operations.
Given the seriousness of the accusation, Prime Minister and Defence Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha should have made a point of answering the allegations there and then. However, the premier chose to go home before the end of the debate, and the morning after his response to the issue was thin. He merely denied that he has such an IO policy and pledged to order a probe into the matter, without making further reference to the documents presented to the House.
The exposure by Mr Wiroj startled those who watched the debate. The facts are simple but sickening. This seems to be a systematic effort to spread hate speech and fake news, and turn people from opposing political camps against each other. At the same time, the alleged IO promotes one-sided information that puts the government and the army in a positive light.
Using a document that the Internal Security Operations Command (Isoc), an agency under direct supervision of the prime minister, submitted to a House committee last year, Mr Wiroj showed an example of how hate speech was committed against a human rights activist and a politician on a blog, pulony.blogspot.com, which features articles related to the restive deep South. The document specifies that this website is funded by Isoc.
Isoc has admitted the authenticity of the document, saying some of its budget is spent countering the spread of fake news in the South, but denied funding the blog, saying its role has only been to monitor it for misleading information.
Few are likely to be convinced by its claim. The blog is dominated by stories praising the army and attacking peace activists. Additionally, if it listed the website in the document for monitoring purposes, it should have reported it to the government's anti-fake news centre in order to have it shut down.
Moreover, Mr Wiroj presented three more reports of the army IO, highlighting how military officers have been mobilised to post abusive comments using fake social media accounts from 2017-2019 as a means to discredit the government's opponents. There were budgets allocated for such operations, he said, which have been served by as many as 1,000 officers stationed in about 40 army units across the country.
As the one who oversees both agencies, Gen Prayut should have demanded an immediate explanation so he could clarify the matter to the public.
Given the fat annual budget of 233 billion baht allocated to the Defence Ministry for the current fiscal year, the public deserves to know whether the government is financing these kinds of operations and how much they are costing the taxpayer. If Gen Prayut has no IO policy as he claims, he must take steps to accelerate the probe into these allegations.
Isoc and the army should never be involved in information operations as such campaigns necessitate the kind of political affiliation from which they must remain free. State-sponsored operations that aim to spread hate speech against certain groups of people must not be tolerated.