The power dynamics of Thailand’s digital activism

Thailand has a long history of political instability and civil strife, with democracy having been repeatedly disrupted by a strong culture of military intervention and monarchical overreach during the past century. Against this backdrop, the country’s political discourse in the past decade has increasingly been shaped and amplified by social media and digital activism.

This year’s wave of political activism has seen the emergence of a countrywide youth-led democracy movement against the military-dominated ruling coalition, as well as a nationalist counter-protest movement in support of the establishment. These protests and counter-protests have ‘heightened the tension on both sides of the increasingly polarized and dangerous political divide’.

In our new report, we analysed samples of Twitter data relevant to these political protests in Thailand and explored two key ways in which the online protest movement differs from its offline counterpart. This includes the power dynamics between institutional actors and protesters, and the participation and engagement of international actors who have become involved in the protests.

In the physical world, protesters operate in places that are almost always controlled by the government. In the digital space, the power asymmetry between protesters and authorities is reduced and transformed. Authorities are forced to operate in spaces that they can’t control to the same degree—spaces in which the social media platforms are the ultimate arbiters. This makes the online dimension of protest movements fundamentally different from their offline component, although both may still complement and influence one another.

The Thai government has repeatedly used institutional methods, such as mass civilian arrests, bans on public gatherings, aggressive dispersal measures, digital surveillance and lawsuits against social media platforms, to curb freedom of expression. However, this has not stopped the pro-democracy movement from taking its grievances, demands and aspirations to both online and offline platforms on a near-daily basis. The government, in response, is turning to new methods, such as coordinated activity on social media platforms.

In October, Twitter removed 926 accounts connected to the Royal Thai Army after the accounts were found to be engaging in covert information operations. In November, a leaked briefing presentation revealed that a further 17,562 Twitter accounts linked to the Thai military were used in a large-scale information operation to increase traffic to pro-monarchy hashtags and to coordinate attacks against pro-democracy campaigns and activists. While the army initially defended itself by labelling these efforts a ‘misunderstanding’, it also acknowledged that military personnel have undergone extensive training ‘to understand digital media platforms effectively and appropriately’.

Our research found further significant indications of highly unusual patterns of Twitter activity favourable to the government and the establishment. This behaviour, intended to shift perceptions and shape narratives about the country’s political situation, ranges from the potential use of automation, to real people being paid to engage in inauthentic behaviour by way of repurposed or newly created accounts.

The protesters are highly aware of accounts that engage in disinformation and social media manipulation to promote pro-establishment narratives and work against the pro-democracy movement. The heightened awareness of these information operations has driven coordinated pushback, mostly by mass-reporting accounts that are deemed suspicious. Similarly, several pro-establishment accounts have openly discussed the mass reporting of pro-democracy accounts that they deem to be a threat to the establishment. This kind of grassroots, citizen-led activism against organised information campaigns can help support democratic values. However, there’s a risk that genuine commentators from both sides will be swept up in such campaigns, thereby undermining their own rights to freedom of expression.

Another key difference between Thailand’s online and offline protests is the participation and engagement of a broader range of actors online. Global leaders, international activists, human rights organisations, celebrities, foreign media outlets and even conspiracy theorists have been shaping discussions, narratives and opinions about the protests and their targets. This is largely due to increased efforts by Thai Twitter users to share content in various languages and seek international support, both for and against the pro-democracy movement.

International solidarity for the protest movement has been widely promoted through the Milk Tea Alliance and K-pop fandom activism, both of which have become powerful online movements for young people to speak up about social issues and fight for democracy. At the same time, there appears to be a growing web of internationalised conspiracy theories online affecting the situation on the ground. Chinese state media, foreign conspiracy theorists, royalist groups, right-wing media and members of the government have sought to undermine the pro-democracy movement by claiming that the protests are tied to the ‘black hand’ of shadowy Western actors, whether that be the CIA, the US’s National Endowment for Democracy or billionaire philanthropist George Soros.

The steady evolution of tactics by the government, the military and protesters is occurring in an increasingly sophisticated new battleground for democracy in Thailand, both on the streets and on screens. Given that the protest movement is an ongoing and rapidly developing phenomenon, understanding these power dynamics is crucial for broader analysis of the country’s political situation and its implications.