Disinformation, in particular state-sponsored online disinformation, has emerged as the main disrupter of electoral integrity in Thailand.
This is expected to impact the upcoming general election, scheduled for May 14, significantly, and is also predicted to influence Thai politics thereafter.
Electoral integrity is upheld by adhering to international standards related to civic rights and the electoral process. Nonetheless, threats to electoral integrity are not limited to gerrymandering and vote buying. Disinformation -- particularly in its online form -- is eroding the integrity of elections around the world, as the internet and social media become the main source of news and information.
In Thailand, an ecosystem of domestic and foreign actors contribute to the creation and endorsement of disinformation campaigns. The ecosystem includes the government, political parties, candidates, pro-government and government-owned media, pro-establishment civil society organisations, private entities, "volunteers", and some foreign governments.
Launched last week, in the report "State-Sponsored Online Disinformation: Impact on Election Integrity in Thailand", Asia Centre, a research institute in Special Consultative Status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council, identifies four impacts of state-sponsored disinformation -- known as Information Operations (IOs) in Thailand -- on electoral integrity.
First, the use of state resources by military operatives to create a combination of pro-incumbent disinformation and malinformation -- presumably the result of IOs -- articulates a positive image of the government and the establishment. This is harmful to electoral integrity since the government takes advantage of its incumbent status to make an unfair use of state resources to influence elections.
Second, IOs weaponise disinformation to harass politicians and activists from underrepresented groups, including women, members of the LGBT+ community, and ethno-religious minorities. For instance, women candidates are often attacked with false narratives to devalue them, shame their bodies, and falsely implicate them in sexual scandals to question their suitability to represent the electorate. This kind of falsehood endangers and obstructs women's political participation.
Third, posts and engagements by disinformation accounts are coordinated to distort information related to the policies of competing parties and candidates to discredit them. On occasions, information related to the electoral process are also misrepresented. Hence, distorted election information can block electorates from access to verified news and prevent them from making informed choices at the polls.
Fourth, IOs exacerbate existing political polarisation in Thailand, primarily driven by the different political stands of pro-democracy groups on the one hand, and pro-establishment elements on the other. Disinformation campaigns based on identity politics trigger hatred among members of both camps, inhibiting voters from participating in informed policy based alternatives.
Asia Centre's findings show that online disinformation campaigns are expected to co-exist with older strategies, such as weak electoral laws, military takeovers, and pro-establishment protests to undermine electoral integrity. The role of IOs is also predicted to intensify, especially in light of the general election. This is primarily due to the lack of effective measures to combat IOs and to hold government agencies engaged in such activities accountable.
To maintain election integrity, Asia Centre proposes a set of recommendations for actors who can make a difference.
That the international community engages with its Thai interlocutors to align the the electoral laws with global standards. Also engage with other stakeholders in Thailand to identify IOs and explore measures to cease such activities.
That the Thai government assess the legal framework and legislate to ensure that no governmental agents are involved in disinformation campaigns that can undermine electoral integrity in the country.
That the Election Commission can implement regulations to combat disinformation campaigns, provide verified electoral information and promote election education among voters to ensure that voters cast their ballot without being manipulated. Technology companies can be provocative in combating disinformation on their platforms by flagging false information and removing or taking down false information that potentially misleads voters. They should also collaborate with the Commission and civil society to tackle inauthentic and coordinated behaviour on their platforms.
Political parties must be equally responsible to not engage in disinformation campaigns and should call out cases of Information Operations, as well as provide safeguards for candidates -- especially those from marginalised groups -- who are targeted by Information Operations and disinformation campaigns.
Civil society organisations should keep monitoring disinformation campaigns. They should also lobby tech companies to assist them in detecting and addressing Information Operations.
Online disinformation is a global problem with a remarkable impact on electoral integrity. In Thailand, in addition to regular disinformation, state-sponsored disinformation has emerged as a key disrupter of election integrity. If effective measures are not taken against it, state-sponsored disinformation can become the preferred tool for democratic subversion.
James Gomez, Ph.D, is regional director and Korbkusol Neelapaichit is a researcher at Asia Centre. To download the report, go to https://asiacentre.org/wp-content/uploads/State-Sponsored-Online-Disinformation-Impact-on-Electoral-Integrity-in-Thailand.pdf