Protest leader Parit Chiwarak or ‘Penguin’ has contrasted online activities in support of the student-led movement to those engaged in by a closed down account on Twitter and accused those behind it of using taxpayers money to fund the campaign. Royalist leader, Warong Dechgitvigrom, on the other hand, has insisted in the last few days that growing online support for the Monarchy was both ‘heartfelt’ and ‘genuine’ and told Reuters he was not even aware of the suspension move made by Twitter.
A top protest leader has welcomed the suspension of a pro royalist Twitter account by the tech giant on Sunday while insisting that online activity in support of the protesters was real and, in a withering observation, pointed out that it was not paid for by the taxpayer. The comments came after news agency Reuters published a report that appeared to confirm that the Royal Thai Army had conducted PR operations online although the military only confirmed a once-off PR exercise in what it termed a training operation.
Protest leader Parit Chiwarak or ‘Penguin’ has applauded the giant social network Twitter for suspending an account linked to promotion of the monarchy on Sunday.
The @jitarsa_school account had over 48,000 members and last week became the subject of an investigation by the international news agency Reuters. The account has been linked to an influential Facebook page for an organisation called the Royal Volunteers School which works with online users to promote and support the monarchy.
These activities have been conspicuous in recent months since the protest movement has increasingly focused on reform of Thailand’s highest institution.
This has resulted in increased polarisation in the kingdom within wider society and even among families and relationships. The tension has generated a sense of insecurity among many Thais who see the Royal institution as the foundation stone of the country, something reinforced by Thailand’s unique history and culture.
Palace does not engage directly with the media
Reuters reported that it had approached the Royal Palace for a comment on the controversy but was told that it had a strict policy of not speaking directly to the media.
‘The account in question was suspended for violating our rules on spam and platform manipulation,’ a Twitter executive confirmed on Sunday. She specifically denied that the move by the Silicon Valley tech firm was linked to the news investigation by Reuters.
The tech firm suggested that the move was dictated by its policies after it detected an attempt to exploit the platform through inauthentic behaviour connected with the account.
News agency Reuters obtained a military document detailing an online information campaign
Reuters conducted an investigation into the Twitter account last week after it obtained a copy of a document produced by the Royal Thai Army detailing an orchestrated information campaign.
The reputable news agency used the Drone Emprit big data system developed in Indonesia by Ismail Fahmi to analyse the activities of the account.
The system has been used in the last few years by media and researchers in academia to interpret social media phenomena worldwide particularly on Twitter.
One of the findings of that analysis was that 559 retweets of messages appeared to come from an account that was machine-driven or employing bot-like technology.
80% of a sample list of users on the suspended Twitter account were created since September and only retweeted messages supporting the monarchy
The Reuters analysis delved into the followers attached to the @jitarsa_school account and took a small sample of 4,600.
They found that over 80% of accounts were newly created since September and only appeared to tweet or retweet messages or hashtags in support of the monarchy.
Saijai Liangpunsakul works with the Social Media Monitoring for Peace Group in Thailand, reportedly an independent organisation. The group is particularly focused on the responsible use of digital technology and digital rights.
Ms Saijai has no doubt that government agencies are conducting an online PR and information campaign to counter the narrative of protesters.
She told Reuters that there are still many more accounts on Twitter that continue to promote the government line.
‘Twitter has taken down some accounts, but there are many more,’ she disclosed.
Royalist leader adamant that online supporters are expressing ‘genuine’ and ‘heartfelt’ opinions
On the other side of the coin, senior government officials and even ministers regularly express concern about the street protest campaign being waged by what they claim are students or academics.
There are many in the governing political party who believe that the agenda of the rallies is not equivalent to the views held by the ordinary Thai people, certainly not in relation to the monarchy.
A leading royalist figure and organiser, Warong Dechgitvigrom, speaking to Reuters, denied any knowledge of the Twitter move when interviewed by the agency.
However, Mr Warong was adamant that support for the monarchy, from online users on social networks, was both ‘heartfelt’ and ‘genuine’.
Army confirms document as a training manual
Meanwhile, the Reuters report went further and revealed some of the details contained in the 28-page army document obtained from a source. It is understood that the army has confirmed that the document is official.
A spokesman for the army told the international news agency that it had been prepared as part of a training exercise for officers in efforts to deepen their understanding of public relations and how to win hearts and minds.
The document referred to over 17,500 Twitter accounts operated by over 9,700 officers. Those involved were divided into a White Team and a Grey-Black team depending on the tactics and strategy being deployed.
Protest leader criticises use of taxpayers money
On Monday, the ‘Penguin’or Mr Parit responded to claims that the protest movement also waged an online campaign to popularise its cause. He insisted that all activity by those who support the protests movement was real and legitimate.
‘They’re not recruited to trend hashtags like the army and they don’t use taxpayers’ money,’ he said.
Ongoing struggle weighs heavily on the minds of the public as the Twitter move risks exacerbating further relations between the government and US tech firms
The controversy over Twitter comes as the Thai King and Queen have been significantly more visible in recent weeks and appear to be enthusiastically received wherever they go.
This contrasts sharply with the continued build-up of tension between the government and protesters which appears to have degenerated into a stalemate between the two sides as more criminal charges are filed against the protest leadership.
Business leaders have also begun to warn that the economic recovery that began in the third quarter, could be jeopardised as the protests are beginning to weigh on consumer confidence.
There is a danger that the public may become fatigued by the endless street protests in the Thai capital and other key centres.
Finally, the move by Twitter will also make the government even more guarded about the activities of US big tech firms who have already been warned by the Minister of Digital Economy and Society, Buddhipongse Punnakanta, this year, over their reticence to remove content deemed illegal under Thai law.
The story also highlights a new role being played worldwide by news agency Reuters which has evolved, in recent months, into a more active news organisation with incisive coverage of Thailand’s current wave of street protests which is gaining increasing media traction worldwide.