Twitter removes 926 accounts linked to Royal Thai Army disinformation

“I want to see the Future Forward Party dissolved,” someone tweeted Feb. 21, hours before the popular progressive party vowing to rein in the military was dissolved by the Constitutional Court

“I’m so glad that the army is alert on the coronavirus. We feel so assured now. #RoyalThaiArmyIsDependable,” another account wrote Jan. 25 just after the COVID-19 outbreak reached Thailand, the first country outside China to report cases. 

Those were just two of 21,386 tweets Coconuts Bangkok obtained from Twitter this morning that it says were posted by nearly 1,000 accounts operated by the Royal Thai Army to engage in information operations. 

It would be a setback in the digital battlespace for the army, which earlier this year was accused of colluding with the government to wage a digital disinformation campaign against critics and the public at large to sow divisions in society. Twitter announced the action late last night. 

“Our investigation uncovered a network of accounts partaking in information operations that we can reliably link to the Royal Thai Army (RTA). These accounts were engaging in amplifying pro-RTA and pro-government content, as well as engaging in behavior targeting prominent political opposition figures,” the social media platform said in a statement.

By and large, the messages promoted military rule, nationalism, and suspicion about the loyalties of pro-democracy progressives. They’re peppered with name calling, referring to critics as “stupid” and “nation-haters.” A lot of fire was focused on popular opposition leader Thanathorn Juangruangroongkit, calling him a “bastard” and worse. 

On Friday afternoon, the army’s public relations division denied that it uses Twitter for information operations on their own citizens. It said it was “unfair” to implicate the military because – wait for it – the messages came from private rather than official army accounts.

Topics addressed in Tweets by the Thai army's domestic information operation in a graph by Stanford University's Cyber Policy Center. It found the most activity in February 2020 and around key events such as a soldier's mass murder in Korat and dissolution of the Future Forward Party. Graphic: Stanford Internet Observatory
Topics addressed in Tweets by the Thai army’s domestic information operation in a graph by Stanford University’s Cyber Policy Center. It found the most activity in February 2020 and around key events such as a soldier’s mass murder in Korat and dissolution of the Future Forward Party. Graphic: Stanford Internet Observatory

That same public relations unit received a great deal of attention and support from the accounts, many of which tagged @army_prnews in their messages.

“@armypr_news If no one helps us, the soldiers will!” and “@armypr_news Soldiers can be everything. They truly can take care and help us every time.”

Nearly all of the accounts had ceased to post tweets as of early March.

Twitter disclosed 926 accounts linked to Thailand today, over half of the 1,594 total accounts it acted against worldwide. 

“Networks affiliated with Iran, Thailand, Cuba, Saudi Arabia & a previously disclosed network from Russia, have all been removed from the service,” TwitterSafety tweeted.

A review of the data by Stanford University’s Cyber Policy Center  found:

      • The removed network engaged in a domestic information operation that promoted the Royal Thai Army and criticized Future Forward Party and Move Forward Party candidates.

      • Tweets often focused on particular events, such as court cases over a loan to the Future Forward Party (resulting in its subsequent disbandment) and the Korat shooting. In the latter case, the network tried to redirect criticism away from the Army, distance the Army from the shooter, and highlight how well the Army responded to the crisis.

      • Most of the 926 accounts were created in either December 2019 or January 2020, and most tweets were from February 2020. Only two accounts continued tweeting after March 2, 2020. We believe Twitter caught the operation relatively soon after creation.

      • This was a relatively unsophisticated social media influence operation with limited reach. The network’s overall Twitter engagement was low: 684 accounts had no followers, and average engagement per tweet was just 0.26 engagements. 

      • The accounts tended to rely on a few basic tactics, such as replying en masse with supportive messages to tweets from Army PR accounts and dogpiling onto tweets from opposition-aligned accounts. Overall, the accounts were thinly backstopped: many of them had empty bio sections and used stolen profile pictures. 

Though no link to the accounts disclosed today was asserted, concerns were raised two years ago by cybersecurity experts when a glut of suspicious accounts were created that used stolen profile photos and Thai names. Many of the accounts quickly followed the same accounts of media organizations and influential social media figures.

In June, Twitter said it had removed roughly 178,000 accounts linked to China, Russia and Turkey. 

Update: This story has been updated with the denial from the Royal Thai Army.

Correction: Twitter’s announcement came late last night, not early this morning.

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