BANGKOK (Reuters) - In Thailand’s election “war room”, authorities scroll through thousands of social media posts, looking for violations of laws restricting political parties’ campaigning on social media that activists say are among the most prohibitive in the world.
The monitors are on the look-out for posts that “spread lies, slander candidates, or use rude language”, all violations of the new electoral law, said Sawang Boonmee, deputy secretary-general of the Election Commission, who gave a Reuters team an exclusive tour of the facility.
When they find an offending post, on, for example, Facebook, they print it out, date-stamp it, and file it in a clear plastic folder, to be handed over to the Election Commission and submitted to Facebook for removal.
“When we order content to be removed, we’ll reach out to the platforms, and they are happy to cooperate with us and make these orders efficient,” Sawang said.
Sawang said the tough electoral laws governing social media for the March 24 election, the first since a 2014 military coup, are a necessary innovation aimed at preventing manipulation that has plagued other countries’ elections in recent years.
“Other countries don’t do this. Thailand is ahead of the curve with regulating social media to ensure orderly campaigning and to protect candidates,” Sawang said.
A Facebook representative said it reviewed requests from governments on a case-by-case basis.
“We have a government request process, which is no different in Thailand than the rest of the world,” the representative said.
Twitter did not respond to a request for comment.
Democracy advocates, worry the social media restrictions laid out by the military government may be impeding parties from freely campaigning.
The rules require that candidates and parties register social media handles and submit a post to the commission, stating what platform it will appear on and for how long.
Parties and candidates are only allowed to discuss policies, and posts that are judged to be misleading voters or that portray others negatively could see the party disqualified, or a candidate jailed for up to 10 years and banned from politics for 20.
Pongsak Chan-on, coordinator of the Bangkok-based Asia Network for Free and Fair Election (ANFREL), said the rules go far beyond combating “fake news” and raise questions about how free and fair the election will be.
“The rules are stricter than in any recent elections anywhere. They’re so detailed and strict that parties are obstructed,” he told Reuters.
The monitoring centre, with a signboard reading “E-War Room”, has three rows of computers and stacks of printouts, with half a dozen workers spending eight hours a day searching for violations of the law.
Sawang said another intelligence centre scanned for violations 24 hours a day but it was “off-limits” to media.
The election is broadly seen as a race between the military-backed prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, and parties that want the military out of politics.
But the stringent rules have left anti-junta parties fretting about how to campaign online, nervous that they could inadvertently break a rule that triggers disqualification.
Up to now, the new rules have not been used to disqualify any candidates though the very threat has had a dampening effect and encouraged self-censorship.
“They create complications for parties,” said Pannika Wanich, spokeswoman for the new Future Forward Party, which has attracted support among young urban folk who have come of age on social media.
She said her party had to consult a legal team before making posts.
Some candidates have deactivated their Facebook pages while others have removed posts that might cause trouble.
Last month, Future Forward leader Thanathorn Juangroonruangkit faced disqualification over an allegation that he misled voters in his biography on the party’s website. The commission dismissed the case last week.
In another petition, the commission was asked to ban the party’s secretary-general for slandering the junta in a Facebook post.
“It’s very restrictive and doesn’t bode well for democracy,” said Tom Villarin, a Philippine congressman and member of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR).
“Putting more restrictions on social media during a campaign season defeats the purpose of holding elections in the first place.”
About 74 percent of Thailand’s population of 69 million are active social media users, putting Thais among the world’s top 10 users, according to a 2018 survey by Hootsuite and We Are Social.
Thailand is Facebook’s eighth biggest market with 51 million users, the survey showed.
Facebook said it has teams with Thai-language speakers to monitor posts and restricts electoral advertisements from outside the country.
“Combating false news is crucial to the integrity and safety of the Thailand elections,” said Katie Harbath, Facebook’s Global Politics and Government director, during a Bangkok visit in January.
Sawang said the election commission has also gained cooperation from Twitter and Japanese messaging app Line, used by 45 million Thais.
Line Thailand told Reuters it did not monitor chats for the election commission but helped limit fake news by showing only articles from “trusted publishers” on its news feature.
Reporting by Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Editing by Kay Johnson, Robert Birsel