OPINION: IO and the cynical mind game against your own people

Pity the IO minions, toiling day and night to sow hatred only to reap 100 baht a day. Pity those soldiers proud of serving their country only to be reduced to the task of trolling, mudslinging, and spreading dark propaganda against their own countrymen.

In times of war, Information Operation (IO) – a cynical mind game designed to manipulate strong feelings against an enemy by propagating packaged lies to discredit or dehumanise them – is rampant and probably constitutional (think posters portraying Japanese soldiers, American GIs or the Vietcong as fanged devils). But when IO is used against your own citizens and political rivals, it reeks of fascism, Stalinism, the Schutzstaffel, or the bloodcurdling call to get rid of “the commie”. We have gone through that before, or have we, as usual, already forgotten?

When IO is funded by the state budget – as documents revealed at the censure debate on Tuesday night showed – it means a serious disabuse of taxpayer’s money and trust. It’s a betrayal of your own citizens. To paint them as enemies of the state for merely having different views, to systematically fire up hostility by pitting one group of Thais against another, is to destroy the last semblance of democracy the government still has left. Simply it’s just one of the worst things they could do to their own people.

Orwell’s MiniTrue – Ministry of Truth, which actually means the Ministry of Lies – is alive and kicking. The Factory of Fake News and the Farm of Disinformation, how they’re well-oiled, incentivised and belching propagandistic smog with such diligence. 

MP Viroj Lakkanadisorn of the former Future Forward Party, in a valedictorian performance at the censure debate, unearthed documents allegedly showing that the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC), which reports to the prime minister, has hired soldiers to troll social media with the aim of disputing, demeaning, and slurring political figures, activists, scholars, and some media channels.

The documents show how these IO officers, through multiple fake avatars, are instructed to belittle and demonise the government’s perceived enemies while, on the contrary, praising the government’s work through the roof. 

The trolls are paid – allegedly as little as 100 baht a day, which is a separate labour crime in itself – and are also eligible for a monthly outstanding performance award of 3,000 baht, according to the dossier. 

I would like to sit on that jury: “So this month, let’s see who made Thanathorn come across as the most disgusting? Come collect your prize!”

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha dismissed all of this as hogwash. The ISOC on Thursday, however, admitted that the documents are real. The rest of their explanation is too longwinded to make any sense.

Among their many IO targets, the most frightening is the one that sets out to sow division in the Deep South. Local people have long suspected that “cyberwarriors” are responsible for at least some of the provocation campaigns that deepen the rifts between the Muslim and Buddhist population, and that cast human rights workers as sympathisers of evil. 

But the evidence shown at the debate pointed to a web called Pulony.blogspot.com (since inaccessible), which features the most hideous graphic I’ve ever laid eye on in my long life plus a catalog of sensationalised, distorted content that targets peace activists, NGO workers, and opposition politicians.

This information war in the Deep South is the most dangerous, obviously because over 7,000 lives have been lost in the region where distrust among various groups is deep-seated and the military presence has always been part of the conflict. It’s a complex, violent place, and to gain trust, you need truth, not lies; honesty, not deceit; and sincerity, not hypocrisy. 

The prime minister, alternating between sulking and bombast, deflected the accusation by claiming that he, too, has been a target of bullying “IO” from a “certain political party.” This is gleefully echoed by his supporters: everyone is doing it so everyone is guilty, especially the “zombies” deployed by the Future Forward Party. But this is false logic that can only convince the biased or the unlearned: There are fundamental differences between IO and PR (public relations), between paid trolls and overzealous, non-paid groupies, between signing up with fake accounts and using real names on Facebook, and between spending state money on something highly dishonest and promoting a cause through private means. The ex-Future Forward Party really does have a number of fans whose passion borders on feverish – it can be annoying but it’s never illegal.

At the top of it all, the Prime Minister is a public figure whose occupational requirements include being the butt of all criticism. The people have the right to scold him, day in day out, online or offline, as long as he’s still perched up there.

Social media can be vociferous and extreme, yes. But these are the times that we’re living in – not just in Thailand but it’s the same everywhere. The government (or the Army, we can’t make a distinction) is throwing fuel into the fire when they resort to black propaganda against their own people and amplifying the conflict with malicious intent. Losing the war on legitimacy, they try to win the virtual war on (fake) approval. They’re fooling no one but themselves. And probably their own trolls. Please, at least pay them better. One hundred baht a day for a duty of such magnitude is just mighty embarrassing. 

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