Thailand Isn't Banning Social Media, It Needs It For Propaganda

Thailand's military leaders don't seem intent on shutting down social media sites altogether — rather, they are using the popular platforms to further an already-robust propaganda campaign.

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In the days since the military quickly and efficiently staged a coup in Thailand, citizens' access to social media has been questionable. Facebook was briefly blocked in the country earlier this week, with a Thai official telling Reuters that "we have blocked Facebook temporarily and tomorrow we will call a meeting with other social media, like Twitter and Instagram, to ask for cooperation from them." (Those companies, for what it's worth, did not meet with the self-appointed leaders.)

More than 100 websites have been blocked, and the new leaders said shortly after the takeover that "it is not the policy of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) to close down any social media. However, specific sites which instigate hatred or disseminate false information have been asked for their cooperation in refraining from further incitement."

Indeed, the leaders don't seem intent on shutting down social media sites altogether — rather, they are using the popular platforms to further an already robust propaganda campaign.

Reuters reports that army control of the country's traditional media is Big Brother-like in scope and absurdism. The Public Health Ministry warned Thai residents that consuming too much news could have adverse health effects, saying "People at risk of such stress are advised to follow only the news from state-run news... if one feels stressed, has difficulty sleeping, has a headache or becomes easily irritated, he/she should consult the stress clinic at public health establishments or call the Mental Health Department's hotline." There's more

Thai PBS channel aired a 30-minute talk show on Tuesday about the former government's ruinous policy and how the junta had made it a priority to secure funds to pay farmers. It repeated the program the following day. That message of military benevolence has been reinforced with looped footage on morning news of farmers emerging from banks counting fistfuls of notes and others sporting “We love the army” stickers, holding placards thanking the new government for paying up.

Though Thai military propaganda is ridiculously heavy handed when delivered via traditional media, it's actually rather deft online. Political scientist Aim Sinpeg writes in the Washington Post that this was "the most social-media savvy coup in Thailand," adding:

Unprecedented in Thailand’s coup history was the military’s extent of media engagement. For the first time ever, the martial law declaration was announced through its Twitter account, @ArmyPR_News, and its new Facebook home, National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the official name of the military government. This makes sense considering that 96 percent of Thais with Internet access use Facebook. So when the NCPO announced its coup, social media served as a key platform.

Although there are still cracks in the veneer:

This media savvy seems to have helped generate a pro-coup online movement. The hashtag #CuteSoldierBoy became popular in the country, and a number of selfies featuring friendly Thai soldiers have been popping up online, apparently indicating support for the coup.

Though some of these may, in fact, be showing genuine support for the soldiers — who have vowed to boost the country's failing democracy — some may be a subversive form of protest. Mong Palatino writes for Global Voices Online that the selfies could be a way for citizens who fear arrest to document the coup:

Perhaps afraid of being tagged as a dissenter, some Thais opted to snap selfies with the soldiers while being silent about their sentiments about the coup. But the selfies succeeded in informing the whole Thailand and the rest of the world that the army has indeed taken over and replaced the civilian government. Through the selfies, we learned that soldiers have been deployed near train stations, malls, major intersections and government offices. 

And it is possible that some residents are simply continuing on with life as usual. According to Sinpeng, the top search terms on last week were "Facebook," "movie" and "music," and a number of commenters complained on the military's Facebook page that the music played on state television was not to their liking. For the country's apolitical, a soldier selfie could just be business as usual.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.