The Thai government is recruiting its own citizens to spy on each other on social media — and even rewarding child "Cyber Scouts" when they tell authorities about any insulting comments they see others making about the country's royal family.
According to a new report released Monday by the human rights watchdog group Privacy International, the information being gathered is helping Thai police bring charges of "lèse majesté" — a long-standing law in Thailand in which anyone who "defames, insults, or threatens" the top members of the royal family faces s prison term of up to 15 years.
Following the 2014 coup led by General Prayut Chan-o-cha, there was a significant increase in the level of online surveillance carried out by the National Council for Peace and Order, the junta created to govern Thailand. The introduction of an updated Computer Crime Act in 2014 gave police wide-ranging authority to monitor online activity.
What the junta can't do through technology, it's attempting to do through incentives and intimidation. Among the report's more disturbing findings is the continued recruitment of children to spy on the online activity of friends and family. The initiative, called Cyber Scouts, was initially launched in 2010, with the Royal Thai National Police offering 500 Baht ($15) to anyone providing information on anti-coup protesters.
Today's Cyber Scouts, however, don't get any money. Instead they earn points for successfully ratting out neighbors in hopes of being featured on the Cyber Scouts website.
"One of the major concerns is… the fostering of an environment where basically everyday citizens are encouraged to inform on others, so people have been denounced by their former friends, their families, and so on," Eva Blum-Dumontet, a researcher at Privacy International told VICE News ahead of the report's publication.
In the two years following the coup, 527 people were arrested, 167 were tried in military court, and 68 were charged with lèse majesté, according to iLaw, a non-profit organization tracking abuses against freedom of expression in Thailand. Out of the 68 cases in which people were charged, 21 involved content posted on Facebook, including five instances in which people were busted for things they'd told friends on Messenger.
The online crackdown has led hackers, like those in the Blink Hacker Group, to fight back against the Thai government.
Watch "Thailand's Cyber Wars," an episode of the VICE News series Blackout.
Since the coup, all lèse majesté cases have been held in closed military courts, where defense lawyers are unable to access evidence. Purportedly in response to public pressure, the Thai government announced last week that it would stop trying citizens in those courts. But Blum-Dumontet says she's been told it's actually the sheer volume of cases being brought for lèse majesté that's responsible for the change; they were simply overwhelming the military courts.
In addition to the Cyber Scout unit, there are several civilian groups devoted to scouring social media for evidence of people speaking out against the royal family. The disturbingly named "SS," for instance, is an ultra-royalist group that has been active since 2010. The group's Facebook page description claims its goal is "to increase public awareness of corruption and create pressure to combat it, and to stop the crime of lèse majesté."
Another of these groups, known as the Rubbish Collection Organization (RCO), founded just one month before the 2014 coup, orchestrated a bullying campaign offline and online against a woman named Tananun Buranasiri. Personal information, including some relating to her husband and children, was posted on RCO's Facebook page. She was subsequently fired from her job.
The groups play on patriotic fervor, but Blum-Dumontet says "sometimes it is also personal tension" that results in information being shared with the authorities. She referenced one case in which an argument between two friends led one to inform on the other about a post on social media made years before.
Despite her organization's call for the government to drop the Cyber Scout initiative, Blum-Dumontet doesn't expect it to end anytime soon.
"The Thai junta has shown so little response to international pressure," she said. "I don't really have much hope for change on this matter, especially because lèse majesté is such a particular issue and particular to Thailand as well."