Critical voices at risk from political hate speech

As the government's attempts to curb dissent in the country increase, the spread of hate speech on social media has spiked. Limiting the spread of hate speech has proved to be difficult.

A protester perform a symbolic performance, gagging himself up with the ribbon which has the message "Untie is available if amend the constitution."

According to an Asia Centre report, hate speech can be defined under four categories: race and religion; foreign nationals, migrant workers and refugees; political ideology and values; and gender and sexual minorities.

The report states that hate speech regulations in Southeast Asia are not uniform. Regulation is “still very much anchored around the traditional race and religion parameters. There is also evidence that governments make use of such laws against their political opponents to prolong their stay in power,” said Dr James Gomez, Regional Director at Asia Centre, in written answers to interview questions.

The use of political hate speech has grown exponentially in Thailand while the government has been able to capitalise on the onset of Covid-19 to attack its critics via existing laws and emergency decree.

Thailand’s limitations on free speech

Gomez said that the most prominent form of hate speech in Thailand is based on political ideology and values. Most of this kind of hate speech is expressed on social media, spreading rapidly over various online platforms.

Gomez underlines the importance of giving a clear definition of hate speech. “As social media has become a major transmitter of political hate speech, there is a necessity to have a definition of what constitutes hate speech.” He explains that this definition can be used to frame unbiased regulations or policies without violating freedom of expression.

“When free speech or criticism becomes prejudicial of others is when we can reject it as hate speech,” said Gomez.

According to a 2019 UN General Assembly report, hate speech is difficult to define because of the lack of consensus around its meaning. This can lead to different interpretations of the phrase which results in the infringement of a wider range of ‘lawful expressions’.

In Thailand, the government has a growing tendency to consider critical dissent as hate speech. Many activists are charged under the Computer-related Crime Act (CCA). Other laws that are used in a problematic way to allow the state huge room for interpretation include the lèse majesté and sedition laws, Sections 112 and 116 respectively of the Criminal Code.

Gomez says that the government use of Sections 112 and 116 of the Criminal Code has been assessed by both domestic and international observers as manipulative.

(Source: asiacentre.org)

Lately, statements critical of the monarchy or government on online platforms have usually been prosecuted under Section 14 of the CCA, which criminalizes uploading data that may threaten national security. This offence could result in up to 5 years in jail and/or a 100,000 baht fine.

Despite being originally intended to prevent cybercrime and misinformation, the CCA tends to be used to block content that criticizes the monarchy or government. In an example of this, on 24 September 2020, the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society asked the Technology Crime Suppression Division of the police to prosecute major social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

The Minister claimed that these platforms had been warned to block illegal URLs within 15 days but had failed to do so. Facebook in particular has faced a lot of pressure from the Thai authorities and conservatives because of content about the monarchy.

Many individuals were also charged under the CCA due to their online criticism of the monarchy, such as a famous twitter user ‘Niranam_’ and Nathee, a man with mental disorder who questioned a speech misunderstood to have been spoken by the late King Rama IX.

After the 14 October 2020 incident where the royal motorcade of Her Majesty the Queen passed a group of pro-democracy protesters, the almost forgotten Section 110 of the Criminal Code that criminalizes harm to the queen’s safety and liberty was used against protesters at the scene.

As of 11 November, 3 activists were accused of trying to block the motorcade of the Queen and Prince Dipangkorn Ramijoti. They denied the accusations and said that they did not know about the arrival of the motorcade and were not trying to block it.

The charges were later questioned as video footage from several media outlets showed that the motorcade was not in fact blocked and no prior announcement was made by the police.

However, the ‘shocking and unprecedented’ incident was used by the PM to justify a ‘severe state of emergency’ to forcibly disperse a protest on 15 October 2020. The right-wing media also used the incident to stoke the fires of hatred.

Under the decree, many protest leaders have been arrested, assemblies have been prohibited and crowds have been forcibly dispersed. Attempts, ultimately unsuccessful, were made to ban 4 media platforms (including Prachatai) and a protest organizer Facebook page for their media coverage about the protests and the monarchy, alleging that it caused instability and instigated people to protest.

“Democratic countries have to allow for dissent and they have to allow for peaceful demonstration,” said a human rights academic from Mahidol University who asked not to be named. He added that governments can limit this freedom to make sure that demonstrations are safe and peaceful but with this decree, the government had overstepped the mark.

Hate speech on social media and limitations in control

In the current divisive political climate, many right-wing conservative groups and organizations have gone online to amplify fear and hatred.

Right-wing social media channels and media that offer online news have continued to question and discredit the protests taking place in Thailand, which has increased misunderstanding in the country.

The same human rights academic who asked not to be named said that with many social media platforms available, it is much easier now to spread hate speech and to incite hatred and violence with impunity. And so he proposed that the responsibility may have to fall back on to the platform not to allow this kind of messages to spread.

But he added that holding these groups accountable for hate speech has been a challenge.  Social media platforms have not been successful in minimizing the spread of hate speech.

Social media platforms use a combination of artificial intelligence (AI), user reports on content and content moderators to identify and remove accounts that incite hate speech. The system is not sustainable because AI is still unable to accurately translate social media posts in local languages and platform rules and regulations are not applied properly by content moderators.

A platform’s policy of abiding with legal obligations in the country also makes it more difficult for the work of journalists and critics to be heard, and easy to delete it. Legally sanctioned discrimination leads to censorship, so this platform policy becomes problematic.

In October 2020, Prachatai’s YouTube video of Anon Nampa’s speech on monarchy reform was also made inaccessible in Thailand following a Thai court order.

According to the Google Transparency Report that is published every 6 months, between 2009 and 2019, the Thai government submitted 964 requests to delete content. Criticism of the government is the most frequent form of content to be the subject of requests, constituting 26,891 cases or 99%.

Of the requests, only 62 were endorsed by the Thai courts. The rest were made by government authorities. In the second half of 2019, the Prayut government submitted requests to delete 1,238 URLs, all of which contain criticism of the government.

Platform policies sometimes affect activists and journalists whose work has been censored by social media platforms like Facebook in order for the platform to ‘maintain access to international markets’ and ‘insulate itself from legal liability’.

When Facebook made changes to their algorithm back in 2018, big newspapers like the Brazilian Folha de S Paulo decided to stop publishing any articles on Facebook. According to Sérgio Dávila, Folha’s Executive Editor, the move to change the algorithm of the social media platform enabled the spread of “political disinformation and hoax stories.”

"In effectively banning professional journalism from its pages in favour of personal content and opening space for 'fake news' to proliferate, Facebook became inhospitable terrain for those who want to offer quality content like ours," said Dávila.

As for states, Gomez explains that in order for government agencies and institutions to be effective in handling hate speech, they should recognize the four forms of hate speech and develop legislation and policies that directly tackle them.

“As hate speech is also used by the government, there should be an independent multi-stakeholder entity for academic, bureaucracy, civil society, media associations, political parties and technology companies to develop a framework for defining and combating political hate speech,” said Gomez.

Bamaejuri Sohkhlet is an intern from Mahidol University International College.