Army should clear air on info ops claims

Army should clear air on info ops claims

While Twitter's discovery of pro-Thai army social media accounts is hardly a surprise, and public anger is simmering.

This is the first time the giant social networking service has confirmed a state-linked network of information operations in Thailand. Its finding also confirms that cyberwar do exist, with the Royal Thai Army unjustifiably being part of it.

Twitter announced last week on its suspension of 1,594 accounts associated with state-linked independent information operations in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Thailand, and Russia.

Among those accounts, 926 were accounts partaking in information operations linked to the Royal Thai Army (RTA). They are associated with "cheerleading" the RTA and spreading pro-government content, and targeting prominent opposition figures.

Stanford Internet Observatory (SIO), which Twitter shared data with, analysed the social networking service data and found that most of those accounts were created between December last year and January, using stolen pictures, with an empty bio section. Typically, they became active shortly after their creation until the end of February. Only three accounts continued tweeting after March 2.

According to the SIO report, the accounts "tended to rely on a few basic tactics, such as replying en masse with supportive messages to tweets from Army PR accounts and dogpiling onto tweets from opposition-aligned accounts."

Their tweets commented or retweeted certain content such as criticism of the then Future Forward Party during court cases. The party was eventually dissolved by the Constitutional Court at the end of February.

The accounts were particularly active during a mass shooting by a low-ranking soldier in Nakhon Ratchasima on Feb 8 and 9 that caused 29 deaths. Most of the tweeted messages appeared to be an attempt to redirect criticism away from the army.

SIO's assessment found the accounts network was "a low-impact operation" as they had few followers and a low engagement level. However, Twitter's finding provides grounds to believe there may exist a connection between the Thai army and online propaganda that aims to protect its image -- at a time when it nosedived amid corruption scandals.

Pro-army and pro-government accounts could be found in a typical daily browse of social media, and they often churn out hatred and fake news about opposition parties and pro-democracy activists.

In recent months, some anonymous army whistleblowers have reported to social media influencers and claimed they were forced by their superiors to create "avatars" (bogus social media accounts) and share pro-military comments.

Therefore, we are not convinced when Lt Gen Santipong Thammapiya, the RTA's deputy chief-of-staff and spokesman, denied Twitter's accusation. He insisted the army did not "have information operations or a policy to create avatars." Information from army units is under the control of a public relations working group of the army, he added.

There's no evidence as to who were behind the avatar accounts which were active during the tenure of former army chief Gen Apirat Kongsompong, who retired last month. As the general is now vice-chamberlain of the Bureau of the Royal Household, we cannot expect him to clear the air.

Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha has distanced himself from this matter. He denied any involvement in information operations when Move Forward MP Wiroj Lakana-adisorn early this year accused him and his government during a House debate of using state funds in a cyberwar against the people.

Mr Wiroj disclosed multiple pieces of evidence, including a document that showed the government had organised training on information operations, and cash rewards for officials whose avatars had the most followers and engagement. One crucial document was from the Finance Ministry which showed the payment made to pulony.blogspot.com, a website that releases pro-military articles and criticises human rights activists and NGOs for their roles in the restive deep South region.

No government officials have stepped out to clarify the documents, making the public even more suspicious about the state budget -- if it is used to serve the political interests of some officials who are keen to widen the social divide.

If the allegation is false, the RTA must prove it, with substantial evidence. It should open up and allow responsible agencies to counter-check or scrutinise its spending in the affair. This is the only way for the agency to regain honour.

Fight with information, generals, if you want respect from us. Avatars and information operations spreading fake news cannot restore the army's reputation.

Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.

Paritta Wangkiat

Columnist

Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.

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