Twitter users in Thailand have been threatened with potential fines and possible jail-time if they make use of the social network for electoral purposes in the run-up to today’s election.

This final weekend of the election is marked as a ‘cooling off’ period during which electioneering and promotion are strictly outlawed. In response to the heightened role of social media in the election, and the continuous nature of its dialogue,  the country’s Election Committee (EC) put out an awkward announcement which is bordering on big brother-like.

Via Reuters:

Any candidates and their supporters will face jail time if they are caught campaigning on social media websites on the evening before the July 3 election,” said Suthiphon Thaveechaiyagarn, secretary-general of the Election Commission.

Forbidding political parties and candidates is, in light of Thailand’s cooling off laws, understandable, however the EC goes so far to suggest that “supporters” should also refrain from promoting their preferred candidates and parties.

The threat includes the sending of SMSs, email, Twitter, Facebook and any other online correspondence.

A rule can logically be applied to stop those with a vested interest in the elections – i.e. the candidates and parties – campaigning at a forbidden time. But now it is applied to everyone in Thailand, effectively preventing friends discussing the election and stating a preferred choice, and other basic discourse.

Then there is the issue of enforcement.

Thai authorities has never been shy with a desire to monitor social media, however keeping an eye on all social networks and online communications channels for ‘inappropriate’ mentions of the election – which are based on subjective definition, at best – is no easy task.

Nonetheless the police has readied “a unit of more than 100 officers to monitor [social media]“. The below description, which is presumably for a web page, has proven an effective way of closing down and censor websites in the past. However blocking and censoring huge and vastly popular sites like Facebook is an altogether different matter.

Again from the Reuters article:

“If we can track the origin of (an online message) right away, we will block the site and make an arrest. But if the sites are registered overseas and we can’t check the origin, we’ll first block it and ask the IP (Internet Protocol) providers for further investigation,” Prawut said.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun, of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, provides Reuters with an astute comment on the law:

“It will be impossible to stop people from doing it. We are living in a digital age and meant to be promoting democracy. Why come up with this?”

Perhaps the most concerning element to the threat is just how ambiguous it is. Like many of Thailand’s laws its definition (in this instance what constitutes “campaigning”) gives it potential to be applied widely, moderately or scarcely based on the opinion or view of those enforcing it.

Just some of the questions and grey areas?

  • Does a tweet that simply mentions a politician’s name constitute campaigning as it raises their profile during cooling-off day?
  • Might tweets relating to certain parties be ignored, while others are acted upon?
  • Is a political party liable for all tweets that mention it? (Of course not)
  • Are Thais overseas allowed to communicate freely based on the laws of their host countries?

Despite the scarcity of serious politicial discussion in public, politics remains a major conversation topic on Twitter, amongst other online media, as the below charts from Thailand Trending illustrate.

[The data covers the last 24 hours from 06.00 Bangkok time, and includes mentions from 300,000 recognised Thai Twitter users - although estimates suggest that there may be up to three times that number registered to the social network in Thailand]

The Thai Election hashtag (9) is one of the top ten most popular, of course this doesn’t include or represent all Thai election tweets…

A look at most commonly found vowels (sic, nouns) show a number of politician mentions are amongst the most used words on Twitter in Thailand. Voting (1 with almost 15,000 mentions), Abhisit (14) Thaksin (20) make up a significant proportion suggesting Twitter users are discussing electoral topics online.

Will this activity die-down on today, Sunday?

The real issue, for me, is not the statement from the EC, which has struggled with new media – such as including the cost behind it in electoral budgets – nor the evidence that suggests that authorities want to control what happens online – any Thailand watcher will be aware of this – instead it is the potential abuse of the law.

I hope we are not in a situation where innocent messages and correspondence sees action taken against members of the public or political candidates who, it has been suggested, could face disqualification.

A fine example was set in Singapore, where social media was considerably more influential in the recent election than it is in Thailand. In Singapore candidates were forbidden from campaign, promoting or even posting online during cooling-off day, but members of the public were free to comment and communicate as normal.

However it was not without controversy as high-profile candidate Tin Pei Ling was acquitted of breaking the cooling-off ban after her page admin mistakenly posted an update to her Facebook page.