Thailand Launches Probe after Facebook Removes Accounts Linked to Military

Nontarat Phaicharoen and Mariyam Ahmad
Bangkok and Pattani, Thailand
2021-03-04
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Thailand Launches Probe after Facebook Removes Accounts Linked to Military Then-Thai Army Chief Gen. Apirat Kongsompong gives a lecture at the military branch’s headquarters in Bangkok, where he discussed how “hybrid warfare” incorporating such methods as spreading propaganda through social media was being used to destroy the nation, Oct. 11, 2019.
AP

Thailand’s leader on Thursday ordered an investigation after Facebook shut down 185 pages, groups and accounts allegedly linked to the Thai military and aimed at influencing the predominantly Muslim population in the insurgency-stricken Deep South.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha made the announcement in response to a reporter’s question at Government House in Bangkok about the action taken a day earlier by the social media giant.

“I’ve assigned the Ministry of Defense to look into what it is all about,” said the PM, an ex-army chief and former junta leader who also serves as defense minister. “Facebook’s move can be seen in different ways, you know. The things will be clear as I ordered the defense ministry to investigate.”

In its Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior Report for February 2021, which was released Wednesday, Facebook said it had removed “77 accounts, 72 pages, 18 groups and 18 Instagram accounts that originated in Thailand and targeted domestic audiences in the Southern provinces of Thailand.”

“Our investigation found links to the Thai Military’s Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC). We found this network as part of our internal investigation into suspected coordinated inauthentic behavior in the region.

“This network posted primarily in Thai about news and current events including content in support of the Thai military and the monarchy, calls for non-violence, regional COVID-19 updates, alleged violence by the insurgent groups in Southern Thailand and criticism of separatist and independence movements.”

Facebook cited examples of alleged misinformation such as a “comprehending the operation” page where an online post attacked the London-based human rights watchdog Amnesty International saying “The NGO never cares about ordinary citizens because they have no role in the society.”

The report noted that those involved in the network went so far as to pose as women.

“Although the people behind it [the network] attempted to conceal their identities and coordination, our investigation found links to the Thai Military’s Internal Security Operations Command,” the report said.

“Some of these fake accounts posed as individuals from Southern provinces of Thailand and also as young women, using stock photos as profile images.”

The report from the Silicon Valley powerhouse also said that about 703,000 accounts followed one or more of the pages, about 100,000 accounts joined at least one of the groups and about 2,500 people followed one or more of these Instagram accounts.

Facebook said its action was in line with its policy to remove content “when we find domestic, non-government campaigns that include groups of accounts and pages seeking to mislead people about who they are and what they are doing while relying on fake accounts. We remove both inauthentic and authentic accounts, pages and groups directly involved in this activity.”

In a statement on Thursday, ISOC spokesman Maj. Gen. Thanathip Sawangsang denied that the military had a role in the network.

“The ISOC has no knowledge of Facebook taking down accounts because such accounts belong to individuals and have nothing to do with the organization. … The ISOC Facebook is still functioning,” he said.

“The ISOC is a hub which drives efforts to assist and alleviate hardships of the people and be a helper of people.”

The Muslim-dominant Malay-speaking southern border region, which encompasses Pattani, Narathiwat, and Yala provinces as well as four districts of Songkhla province, has been entangled in an armed separatist insurgency since January 2004. More 7,000 people have been killed in violence in the region during the past 17 years.

Rights activist concerned

The move by Facebook follows action by Twitter in October 2020 to close 926 accounts it found to have links with the Thai military. An army spokesman at the time argued the accounts were meant to disseminate information to the public.

Social media allegedly sponsored by the government attack human rights activists, according to Angkhana Neelapaijit, a Ramon Magsaysay Award laureate and former member of the National Human Rights Commission.

“In the past, whoever criticized the handling of the Deep South troubles would be attacked and [targeted with] hatred upon by those pages,” Angkhana told BenarNews. “I was attacked and I filed a complaint to the Computer Crimes Suppression Division but to no avail.” 

On Thursday, legal advocacy group iLaw submitted a petition to the Administrative Court seeking an order to stop the Royal Thai Army from conducting misinformation operations.

“There is evidence that the messages they conveyed were aimed at dissidents. While there are some good words and sensible messages, most of them are slanderous, rude and nonsense,” Yingcheep Atchanont, a program manager for iLaw, told reporters.

Yingcheep and two companions said they were targeted by the operations.

“I’m coming here to seek Administrative Court’s order to point out that these information operations are illegal and must be stopped immediately, not for us three, but for all.”

The Administrative Court settles disputes between citizens and government agencies.

Death sentences upheld

Meanwhile in Pattani, the Supreme Court earlier this week upheld death sentences for a half-dozen suspects held responsible for a bomb blast at a night market that killed a woman and injured more than 20 in 2016, a police official said Thursday.

“The Pattani Supreme Court read a verdict on a bomb case which took place in the Pattani municipality in 2016, in which it upheld death sentences of six convicts, life imprisonment for three others and imprisonment of 36 years and eight months for another,” police Col. Taweesak Thongsongsi, a deputy spokesman in the Deep South, told reporters.

The court ruled that the defendants were guilty of forming a syndicate and acquiring weapons to perform multiple attacks, said a military source who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak about the case.

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