disinformation and misinformation

Misinformation, disinformation surrounded Thai 2023 election

Chanapat Komlongharn

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Misinformation, disinformation surrounded Thai 2023 election
A surge of misinformation and disinformation marked the Thai 2023 election, some of which appeared to be strategically orchestrated for political advantage. This coincided with the advent of democracy, seen for the first time in almost nine years after military rule.

BANGKOK, Thailand – On May 14, 2023, Thailand held a nationwide election that marked the end of the regime of general-turned-politician Prayut Chan-o-cha. He had staged a coup in 2014 to overthrow the government and assumed leadership of the country until 2023.

At the time, the Thai social media landscape experienced a surge in “misinformation,” according to a report conducted by civil sector-managed data analytics company Rocket Media Lab

According to the same report, there were at least 70 instances of misinformation disseminated between May 14, the day of the election, and August 22, when the Thai Cabinet received royal approval from the King. Interestingly, election winner Move Forward Party bore the brunt of these attacks, numbering about 24.

The majority of these instances of misinformation revolved around political games, political ideologies, and policies of the party that concerned the monarchy, in particular. The party was accused of advocating for the overthrow of the monarchy owing to its stance on lese-majeste laws, also known as Article 112 of the Penal Code.

This misinformation spread across all social media platforms in various forms, including images, videos, comments, and posts. This persists to this day.

One such example could be found in a Facebook group named “ปกป้องราชอาณาจักรไทย : Protect the Kingdom of Thailand” which posts messages from pro-establishment groups (referring to royalist-conservative elites, business magnates, high-ranking government officials, and right-wing politicians).

The group outlined 11 objectives of its Facebook group, including supporting the country’s constitutional monarchy system, resolving societal conflicts among citizens, exposing political groups purportedly advocating for democracy but with intentions to alter the country’s structure and undermine traditional Thai values, and disseminating factual information to the public.

Screenshot by Chanapat Komlongharn/Rappler

A post by user “ทัศนัย ธิยะใจ” on May 4, 2023, said, “if Move Forward Party takes office, we will see the USA come to influence the [Thai] state by setting up a military base in Thailand for destroying China.”  

The post was published in the same month when fake news circulated on the LINE chat application, claiming that the US Senate had approved a bill to intervene in Thai internal affairs.

The disinformation was then debunked by Co-Fact, a group that does fact-checking. US ambassador to Bangkok Bob Godec also denied the claim, saying: “The U.S. respects the institution of the Thai monarchy and the great esteem in which Thais hold the Royal Family. I also emphasized that the U.S. did not have a preferred outcome in the election and does not support a party or candidate.”

This disinformation was also discovered in several other affiliated Facebook groups, including one called “ปกป้องสถาบัน ชาติ ศาสนา พระมหากษัตริย์ และพสกนิกรทุกหมู่เหล่า (Protecting the Nation, Religion, Monarchy, and All Sorts of Populaces).”

A Facebook user named “สุริยน ก่อสุข” shared a photo showing Move Forward party MP Rukchanok Srinork holding a white paper with a message stating, “[I am an] MP, not anyone’s lackey.” The accompanying caption read, “Really, Are you a prostitute?”

Screenshot by Chanapat Komlongharn/Rappler

However, it was discovered that the image was manipulated. The original post by MP Rukchanok simply featured an empty picture with the caption, “I would like everyone to help add a message [on this paper] to introduce myself,” posted in May 2023.

Quite concerning, some individuals have fallen for the manipulated photos and made derogatory comments targeting the incorrect Thai language spelling in the image. One comment even resorted to hate speech, specifically gender-based harassment, stating: “What about 1500 baht? (a reference to the usual price to buy a prostitute in Thailand) This indicates the quality and knowledge [of her]. She has even surpassed the level of Thai language, hahaha.”

Screenshot by Chanapat Komlongharn/Rappler

Rukchanok has frequently been the target of hate speech due to her radical political views and past involvement as an activist. Furthermore, criticism has been leveled against her for her choice to appear in revealing attire, targeting her personal character.

Fake accounts, organized information operations

Such groups appear to include members who are using fake accounts.

We examined the “ปกป้องราชอาณาจักรไทย : Protect the Kingdom of Thailand” group closely and identified one member who appeared to be using a fake account.

The account named “Graoorrr Lily” stood out, and upon further investigation, we discovered over 30 accounts with similar names or closely related variations. Many of these accounts were created within a short timeframe, primarily between May and June 2022, and all appeared to be active.

Screenshot by Chanapat Komlongharn/Rappler

Going deeper into accounts with similar or close patterns of names currently appearing on Facebook, we uncovered additional profiles on Facebook in a more complex way when it comes to setting up names.

There are numerous users named “สุน้อยหน่า เยาวนารส,” with many of them featuring profile pictures and personal information akin to real accounts. However, some peculiarities were found, notably in the limited scope of their listed workplace or university studies, which seemed confined to the same group.

Screenshot by Chanapat Komlongharn/Rappler
Screenshot by Chanapat Komlongharn/Rappler

Another example is the account named “อนุศร หัศจักร.” There are four accounts under this name, each with a profile picture of the same individual, but with differing personal details. These accounts have been observed engaging in activities such as posting, sharing, liking, and commenting on content that appears to be supportive of pro-establishment groups.

Screenshot by Chanapat Komlongharn/Rappler

The account is also a member of several Facebook groups supporting the establishment.

This aligns with the claim of Move Forward, which said that the party has been targeted by organized information attacks.

“Fake news or disinformation directed to the Move Forward Party is now more difficult to notice as it gets more complex,” said the election winner’s MP Natthaphong Ruengpanyawut during an interview.

Natthaphong, who oversees the party’s technological affairs, disclosed that during the previous election, he uncovered instances where political factions had enlisted marketing companies to orchestrate information operations (IO) aimed at undermining their competitors.

This is unlike a previous situation, where such IO activities were predominantly conducted by the military, he said.

During Prayut’s administration, the Move Forward Party, which garnered as many as 151 out of 500 seats in the House of Representatives in 2023, exposed IOs allegedly run by the state against critics of the government, supporters of the opposition, and activists.

One such example is a Facebook user believed to be a soldier spreading fake news and claiming that the Progressive Party wanted to cut pensions for retired government officials.

Translated in English, the user named “Ped Ped” commented on the page of former Move Forward MP Padipat Suntiphada that the party will “cancel pensions for retired officials and will probably cancel the social security fund system.”

Move Forward later disclosed that the account belonged to a soldier, as indicated by its details, which listed the account’s workplace as the Special Warfare Command.

The army subsequently denied the allegation, asserting that it had not utilized taxpayers’ funds to engage a company to conduct information operations.

During this period, however, a document revealing the army’s involvement in IO efforts was leaked. According to the Bangkok Post, the disclosure happened just weeks after X (formerly Twitter) had shut down hundreds of accounts that it claimed to be army-backed disinformation campaigns against government opponents.

The Asia Centre’s report titled, “State-Sponsored Online Disinformation: Impact on Election Integrity in Thailand” emphasized that the use of IO harms electoral integrity since the government takes advantage of its incumbent status to unfairly use state resources to influence elections, weaponize disinformation to target competitors, and deepen political polarization.

“We were targeted because we, our party, aim to fight against the establishment. This is only because of political issues,” Natthaphong said.

How to deal with disinformation

Addressing this challenge, Associate Professor Wilaiwan Jongwilaikasaem, a lecturer and faculty member of the Journalism and Mass Communication Department of Thammasat University, said it is necessary to have coordinated action across media, civil society, and government to rectify the situation.

Wilaiwan urged editorial teams in every newsroom to “do more” in verifying the reliability of the stories they publish and to promote media literacy among the public, advising them not to believe everything they read.

“Oftentimes, the media is used to make fake news more reliable. Some outlets know that they are really publishing fake news but still do so due to some sort of benefits. Meanwhile, some do not know that they are really publishing fake news.”

“The most critical problem is that people still do not know enough about the media as communication formats and technology have changed,” she added.

The academic also stressed the need for increased government regulation, cautioning that it should prioritize supporting, rather than limiting, press freedom. – Rappler.com

Chanapat Komlongharn, affiliated with The Nation in Thailand, is a #FactsMatter Journalism Fellow for 2023-2024

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