Digital Repression Deliberated: The Importance of Parliamentary Scrutiny
One effective check on the Thai military-led regime’s use of repressive tactics online has come in the form of parliamentary oversight.
On 17 November 2022, Meta sent alerts to at least 26 Facebook users in Thailand that their accounts were targeted by “government-backed or sophisticated attacks”. It turned out that these accounts belonged to dissidents either involved in anti-establishment activism from 2020-2021 or in organising demonstrations against the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings held on 16-19 November 2022 in Bangkok.
Meta’s warning, however, failed to draw critical public attention in Thailand. Apart from an iLaw post and a piece published in Prachatai, most mainstream outlets did not report these latest cyberattacks. On Twitter, no hashtags on the incident went viral. This contrasts with the exposé of the spyware Pegasus that the authorities allegedly used against Thai citizens in late 2021 and follow-up investigations by the digital rights groups iLaw and CitizenLab in July 2022. Media coverage of this revelation was extensive, with tabloid media, tech-oriented outlets, and conservative mouthpieces invariably offering tips to deal with being spied on. Meanwhile, the hashtag #Pegasus (#เพกาซัส) reached 123 million impressions (the total number of times a tweet has been read) on Twitter in July 2022. This is a sharp spike from the 600,000 impressions in late November 2021, when Apple initially alerted Thai users of Pegasus attacks. Figure 1 below shows this sharp spike.
All of a Flutter About Pegasus
The marked difference in media and public responses to these two events tells us that public pressure against digital repression in Thailand may wane when there are other issues considered more pressing. One of the reasons why #Pegasus gained so much traction was due to the sustained parliamentary deliberations that provided some institutional ammunition for tackling digital repression.
The leading opposition party — Move Forward — has taken the lead in countering the government’s dubious digital policies. In early 2020, when discussions about state-sanctioned Information Operations (IOs) were mere speculation, Move Forward (the party was then named Future Forward) legislator, Virot Lakkana-adisorn, revealed evidence that the Thai army had orchestrated IOs on social media. By referring to “confidential documents” leaked by “inside informants”, he demonstrated how military IOs tarnished the image of human rights defenders in Thailand’s conflict-engulfed deep south and also smeared opposition activists. Because military budgets funded IOs, Virot convincingly argued that “citizens’ taxes” were misspent to sow hatred and polarisation among Thais.
After this first exposé, in 2021, two Move Forward legislators, Nattacha Boonchai-insawad and Pakorn Udompipatkul, held three debates that further uncovered state-sponsored IOs. On 19 February and 31 August 2021, Nattacha elaborated on the confluence of state and private agencies in online influence operations. On 3 September 2021, Pakorn shed light on the political partisanship of the Anti-Fake News Centre (AFNC) under Thailand’s Ministry of Digital Economy and Society (DES). He pointed out that while the Centre cracked down on disinformation that was critical of the government, it had turned a blind eye to misleading information that was positive about government policies.
More recently, in July 2022, Move Forward legislator Picharn Chaowapattanawong followed up on a civil society investigation into digital surveillance by tracing police fiscal reports to identify which snooping devices the Thai authorities had previously procured. He linked this evidence to digital forensic data showing the timeline of Pegasus attacks and profiles of domestic online targets. This disclosure prompted DES Minister Chaiwut Thanakamanusorn to admit that “he was personally aware of Pegasus being used in Thailand in cases related to national security and drug trafficking” although he later backtracked, saying that “his comments were general observations and not specifically about Thailand”.
If sustained, such legislative oversight and other related democratic mechanisms could present an effective institutional response to digital repression in Thailand, beyond short-lived public pressure.
Parliamentary scrutiny of such IOs has important implications. First, the deliberations are an institutional acknowledgement that digital repression has been carried out under the auspices of the Prayut Chan-ocha government. The parliamentary debates validated the digital predicament that Thai netizens have discussed for years. These parliamentary discussions have helped to galvanise public debates online and promote public awareness in general about government repression and monitoring of its critics.
As demonstrated, mentions of #Pegasus skyrocketed on Twitter when the public’s attention was focused on media and other discussions about the spyware. Many social media users expressed shock and anger against the government, and some shared about where and how to get one’s phone checked if a user suspected the spyware had infected their device. The most re-tweeted post was by a tech YouTuber ‘Nai Arm’ (an alias), who explained to netizens in plain language about how Pegasus works. The public reaction and uproar have legal and political implications: eight Thai targets of Pegasus sued its manufacturer, the Israel-based NSO, in November 2022.
More importantly, parliamentary scrutiny of the government’s IOs allowed in-depth analytical treatment of the subject and enabled Thai citizens to use official institutions to call the authorities to account. This was reflected in the October 2020 Stanford Internet Observatory’s study of state-backed influence campaigns in Thailand and a lawsuit filed in March 2021 by dissidents. They used the parliamentary debates as evidence, supported by the Stanford University study, to allege that the Thai army was spreading online hatred against them.
There are longer-term policy implications. Thai lawmakers can address digital repression through sub-committees by acquiring official evidence from related agencies, summoning the authorities to provide information, and calling for legislative action to challenge budgets for technology procurement which might have been misused for repressive tactics. According to the author’s interviews with Pakorn and Picharn, the politics of secrecy — epitomised by ‘dark’ budgets for covert military missions or obscure procurements of technologies — hinders parliamentary checks.
Thai legislators can strengthen regulatory frameworks to curtail further violations of digital rights and privacy, by changing or limiting existing regulations on covert military spending and strengthening lawmakers’ access to confidential military or other information on dark operations when Thai citizens’ rights are at stake.
If sustained, such legislative oversight and other related democratic mechanisms could present an effective institutional response to digital repression in Thailand, beyond short-lived public pressure. Sustained parliamentary scrutiny might make state actors think twice before exploiting technologies and misusing public funds to suppress digital space.
Janjira Sombatpoonsiri is Assistant Professor and Project Leader at the Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University.