When our govt gets into the fake news game
Browsing through social media platforms, many of us must have experienced a wave of information warfare propelled by dubious and mysterious social media users whose profile pictures are images of animals or scenery and whose friend lists are very short.
They often attack the government's opponents and pro-democracy activists by posting comments to discredit them and spread disinformation against them. They also praise the government and the army.
Recently, they labelled students participating in anti-government flash mobs as "puak chang chart" (the people who hate the nation), falsely portraying their democratic activism as a movement to destroy traditional institutions, peace and security.
Many of us must have suspected that these users are fake and part of information operations (IOs) manoeuvred by the powers-that-be. But we had no evidence to prove our suspicion. Now, thanks to MP Wiroj Lakkhanaadisorn of the disbanded Future Forward Party (FFP), we have been given a glimpse of who might be behind the IOs.
During the censure debate last week, Mr Wiroj presented documents that exposed what appeared to be IOs of the Internal Security Operations Command (Isoc) and the army. Both are under the direct supervision of Prime Minister and Defence Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.
One document shows Isoc's request for a 2017-2019 budget to fund a news website publishing articles against activists, academics and politicians who promote peace in the deep South.
Another document, allegedly issued by the army last year, reveals the training for military officers to create fake avatars or social media pages to defend the army.
His other documents also show the army has specific funding for its IOs, which paid each of the officers an extra 100-300 baht monthly for the mission. Those whose social media pages and accounts became popular were awarded 3,000 baht each. The army had also set up Line groups for this mission, he alleged.
His exposure has sparked anger among netizens.
Isoc spokesman, Maj Gen Thanathip Sawangsaeng, later admitted the document was real, however, he denied Isoc was waging an IO against anyone. Its IO aims to counter the spread of fake news, he said.
Gen Prayut denied Mr Wiroj's claim, saying he has no such IO policy. But he failed to confirm whether the army's documents were genuine. In fact, he could have come up with clarifications. If his government is not involved, it must launch efforts to tackle the IOs that turn people against each other.
The IOs remind many of the army's old propaganda strategy used against "communists" during the Cold War. Those fake social accounts seem to target particular groups of people waging "we" against "them" sentiments, similar to how the Cold-War propaganda accused innocent people who defied the dictatorship regimes of being the "cruel communists".
Some avatar accounts have specific missions to promote "Thai values" treasured by traditional institutions and the army and call for the destruction of other progressive values such as diversity, democracy and freedom. To me, this strategy is dangerous because it pits one faction of society against those who have different opinions, instigating hate and possibly violence. It was the same tactic that led to the killing of pro-democracy students by the rightists during the Thammasat University massacre in 1976.
I doubt whether the same tactic still works nowadays when people have access to a vast pool of information available on the internet. Obviously, it does not work with young students who have participated in anti-government flash mobs in universities and high schools across the country over the past week, following the Constitutional Court's order to dissolve the FFP. The movement is also driven by their dissatisfaction with the government's poor performance and the broken rule of law in the country.
The flash mobs have become venues for students to discuss the 1976 massacre and the role of the Khana Ratsadon, a group of military and civil officers who transformed Thailand into a constitutional monarchy in 1932. These chapters of history are not taught much in school and thus it is not surprising that those avatar accounts never mention them.
On the bright side, the protesting students are immune to the IOs and are not fooled by disinformation of the avatar accounts, thanks to their curiosity about the country's history and hunger for information.
We should not underestimate young people.
Those accusing them of being fooled by politicians for forming flash mobs should have checked on themselves whether they are fooled by the IOs.
Paritta Wangkiat is a columnist, Bangkok Post.
Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.