Watch-scan­dal polling shenani­gans sully de­cent de­bate

Bangkok Post - - OPINION - Paritta Wangkiat Paritta Wangkiat is a colum­nist, Bangkok Post.

Which of th­ese two poll re­sults is more con­vinc­ing to you: The ma­jor­ity of peo­ple want Gen Prawit Wong­su­won to re­sign from the posts of deputy prime min­is­ter and de­fence min­is­ter, or the ma­jor­ity want him to stay?

Since the lux­ury watch scan­dal in­volv­ing Gen Prawit erupted last De­cem­ber, there have been grow­ing calls for him to re­sign. In re­cent weeks, un­of­fi­cial on­line sur­veys have been held on the is­sue. If you look at the re­sults of th­ese sur­veys, you may be baf­fled as to which ones are real and which ones are fake, be­cause they show wildly con­trast­ing re­sults.

The ri­val polls, put up by both sides in the de­bate, have turned into a form of on­line in­for­ma­tion war­fare. It’s a fight be­tween two sides of il­lu­sion­ary war­riors whose in­vis­i­ble hands are ea­ger to click on sur­veys and vote.

Some sur­veys were con­ducted on well-known so­cial me­dia and web plat­forms such as the Face­book pages of the ThaiPBS news agency, CSI LA and the web­site, where re­sults were mixed.

By con­trast, opin­ion polls car­ried out by other lit­tle-known or pre­vi­ously-un­known web­sites and Face­book pages showed strong sup­port for the gen­eral.

Just re­cently, on Feb 3, a web­site named kon­ (lit­er­ally means “peo­ple love forests”) opened, prais­ing Gen Prawit for his mis­sion to con­serve forests in his ca­pac­ity as chair­man of the army-founded Five Prov­inces Bor­der­ing For­est Preser­va­tion Foun­da­tion which spon­sors con­ser­va­tion projects in the east­ern re­gion.

On its launch date, the web­site started col­lect­ing the names of those who want Gen Prawit to stay in the gov­ern­ment. Sup­port­ers of the gen­eral were asked to sub­mit their names in a box pro­vided on its home­page.

Within one week, it had gained over 120,000 names. But the list of names in­cludes many uniden­ti­fied peo­ple and fab­ri­cated names in­clud­ing those of celebri­ties such as Don­ald Trump!

The iden­tity of the web­site’s reg­is­trant is shielded.

Its reg­is­tered lo­ca­tion is in Kowloon, Hong Kong. The web­site con­sists of noth­ing more than in­for­ma­tion copied and pasted from else­where, and in­cludes gen­eral in­for­ma­tion about types of forests and lists of na­tional parks in Thai­land.

Ap­par­ently, this web­site has no own­er­ship. It does not gen­uinely rep­re­sent the voices of any­one. Its cre­ated the false per­cep­tion that Gen Prawit is pop­u­lar even though he is, in fact, suf­fer­ing a down­turn in his pop­u­lar­ity.

Ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties have also been de­tected in other on­line polls. The CSI LA Face­book page, which ex­posed the lux­ury watches worn by Gen Prawit in pic­tures sup­plied by crowd sources, launched an opin­ion poll early this month, ask­ing peo­ple to vote on whether he should quit. The page ad­min­is­tra­tor saw the “no” vote soar within two hours dur­ing the sec­ond day of the polling.

Those vot­ers used sim­i­lar IP ad­dresses to re­peat­edly vote “no”. As a re­sult, the “no” vote won, gain­ing 53% of the vote from more than 14,900 re­sponses.

A sim­i­lar in­ci­dent hap­pened at the web­site where a cam­paign be­gan in sup­port of Gen Prawit on the grounds that he guar­an­teed free live broad­casts of the 2018 Fifa World Cup matches.

The cam­paign re­ceived over 16,000 sig­na­tures in its early days. But it was dis­cov­ered later that th­ese names were sub­mit­ted by fake or bot ac­counts, us­ing the iden­ti­ties of real peo­ple who are un­aware that their names and emails were used as sig­na­tures for the cam­paign.

When ver­i­fied the names one by one, the num­ber of cam­paign’s sup­port­ers plum­meted to a few hun­dred.

Th­ese move­ments il­lus­trate that a bat­tle is tak­ing place for public opin­ion on web-based and so­cial me­dia plat­forms, fed by mis­in­for­ma­tion sup­plied by groups whose iden­ti­ties are yet to be re­vealed.

Po­lit­i­cal po­lar­i­sa­tion in Thai­land cou­pled with so­phis­ti­cated in­ter­net tech­nol­ogy has given birth to many trolls and uniden­ti­fied ac­counts that pro­voke ha­tred, op­er­ate witch hunts and spread fake news on the in­ter­net. They’ve turned so­cial me­dia into a weapon to at­tack oth­ers or build pop­u­lar­ity for cer­tain peo­ple.

The mil­i­tary gov­ern­ment has dis­tanced it­self from the mat­ter amid public sus­pi­cion of its in­volve­ment. But it is pretty clear that th­ese fab­ri­cated ac­counts serve the gov­ern­ment’s pur­pose even though we have no ev­i­dence of their own­ers or cre­ators.

Re­cently, when the re­lease of a poll on the lux­ury watch scan­dal con­ducted by the Na­tional In­sti­tute of De­vel­op­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion (Nida) was halted, many sus­pected state in­ter­fer­ence.

The gov­ern­ment in­sisted it had noth­ing to do with it, but the “self-cen­sor­ship” in­ci­dent prompted Nida poll cen­tre di­rec­tor, Arnond Sak­worawich, to quit.

The in­ci­dent prompted many to ques­tion the cred­i­bil­ity of opin­ion polls, given that many showed con­tra­dic­tory public opin­ions. For ex­am­ple, even as one poll im­plied most peo­ple were not sup­port­ive of a gen­eral elec­tion as they wor­ried about pos­si­ble as­so­ci­ated vi­o­lence, an­other poll sug­gested peo­ple were con­cerned about the gov­ern­ment’s at­tempts to de­lay the poll.

Dis­in­for­ma­tion is also a weapon of the gov­ern­ment. In a re­cent in­ci­dent, it linked pro-democ­racy ac­tivists, who face charges for a protest gath­er­ing on Jan 27 in Bangkok to call for an elec­tion, to the red-shirt protest move­ment even though many are not of the group.

Clearly, we have reached a point where it is hard to tell apart real and fake in­for­ma­tion, au­then­tic from fraud­u­lent polls. The state serves up par­tial in­for­ma­tion to suit its agenda. So­cial me­dia is a plat­form for in­for­ma­tion war­fare.

It is up to us, the con­sumers, to use our judge­ment.

We can un­crit­i­cally ac­cept fab­ri­cated sto­ries and poll re­sults gen­er­ated by uniden­ti­fied sources, or value the gen­uine voices of peo­ple who dare to iden­tify them­selves — take your pick.


Ac­tivists wear masks call­ing for Deputy Prime Min­is­ter Prawit Wong­su­won to re­sign. The lux­ury watch scan­dal in­volv­ing the gen­eral has trig­gered on­line in­for­ma­tion war­fare.

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