FILE PHOTO: Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn and Queen Suthida receive flowers from royalists during their appearance in Bangkok, Thailand, November 25, 2020. REUTERS/Chalinee Thirasupa
November 29, 2020
By Matthew Tostevin and Patpicha Tanakasempipat
BANGKOK (Reuters) – Twitter has suspended a Thai pro-royalist account linked to the palace that a Reuters analysis found was connected to thousands of others created in recent weeks spreading posts in favour of King Maha Vajiralongkorn and the monarchy.
The Reuters review found tens of thousands of tweets that an expert said appeared to be from accounts amplifying royalist messaging in a push to counter a months-long protest movement that has swelled from opposing the government to breaking a longstanding taboo by challenging the monarchy.
Internal army training documents reviewed by Reuters showed evidence of a coordinated information campaign designed to spread favourable information and discredit opponents.
The pro-monarchy @jitarsa_school account was suspended after Reuters sought comment on Wednesday from Twitter on the recent royalist campaign on the social media platform, where protesters have long had a strong presence.
Protesters and royalists have cited the importance of social media in propelling the protest movement, which has become the biggest challenge in decades to the monarchy as well as the government of former junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha.
Created in September, the @jitarsa_school account had more than 48,000 followers before its suspension.
“The account in question was suspended for violating our rules on spam and platform manipulation,” a Twitter representative said on Sunday. She said the suspension was in line with the company’s policies and not a result of the Reuters request for comment.
The account’s profile had said that it trained people for the Royal Volunteers programme, which is run by the Royal Office. A Facebook page for the Royal Volunteers School, which posts pro-monarchy videos and news of the programme, also identifies the Twitter account as its own.
Neither the school nor the Royal Volunteers headquarters responded to requests for comment on the suspension. The “Volunteer Spirit 904” programme was established during the current king’s reign, which began in 2016, to build loyalty to the monarchy.
The palace did not respond to a request for comment. It has a policy of not speaking to media and has not commented since the start of protests in July that initially targeted the government before breaking taboos by calling for curbs to the king’s powers.
In recent weeks, royalist hashtags have begun trending on Twitter, an important platform for opponents of the government even before protests began in July.
The Reuters analysis found that more than 80% of the accounts following @jitarsa_school had also been created since the start of September. A sample of 4,600 of the recently created accounts showed that all they did was promote the royalist hashtags – an indication of the kind of activity that would not be associated with regular Twitter users.
A sample of 559 retweets of the account’s tweets were virtually all from accounts with bot-like characteristics, according to research by social media consultancy Drone Empirit for Reuters.
“Government forces have been trying to counter the protesters,” said Saijai Liangpunsakul of the independent Social Media Monitoring for Peace group. “Twitter has taken down some accounts, but there are many more.”
Hashtags promoted by the suspended account, usually alongside pictures of the king and other royals, included those that translate as: #StopViolatingTheMonarchy, #ProtectTheMonarchy, #WeLoveTheMotherOfTheLand, #WeLoveTheMonarchy and #MinionsLoveTheMonarchy.
Royalist group leader Warong Dechgitvigrom declined to comment on the account’s suspension, saying he was unaware of it.
He told Reuters there were more pro-monarchy messages on Twitter because royalists increasingly recognised the need to counter protesters’ messages and had encouraged each another to join the platform.
“Pro-monarchy hashtags are authentic, born out of true feelings,” he said.
PROTESTERS ACCUSED BY ROYALISTS
Royalists have accused protesters of inauthentic activity on Twitter, with coordinated campaigns around hashtags.
But Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak, one of the protest leaders, said protesters using the platform were genuine and he welcomed the suspension of the pro-royalist account.
“They’re not recruited to trend hashtags like the army and they don’t use taxpayers’ money,” he said.
Although not directly linked to the @jitarsa_school account, a 28-page army document reviewed by Reuters showed an organised information operation to target “opponents” and spread pro-monarchy messages on Twitter.
The document says 17,562 Twitter accounts run by 9,743 army officers are split into a “White Team” and a “Grey/Black Team” that were instructed to tweet with coordinated hashtags, as well as to like, retweet and follow one another.
The document suggests measures to appear more like authentic accounts.
The army on Saturday acknowledged the document is genuine, saying in a Facebook post it was used in a training session to strengthen the army’s public relations efforts.
In early October, Twitter announced it had taken down 926 accounts linked to the Thai army for violating its platform-manipulation policies by amplifying pro-government content and targeting political opposition figures.
The army at the time denied that the accounts belonged to army officials.
(Reporting by Matthew Tostevin and Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Additional reporting by Fanny Potkin)