Watch-scandal polling shenanigans sully decent debate
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 Change.org 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 konrakpa.org (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 change.org 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 Change.org 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.