No military takeover would really be complete without a social media blackout — even if it’s just for half an hour. Thailand's government apparently briefly blocked Facebook today in the latest move to consolidate power and control over the country after the army staged a coup last week.
An official from Thailand’s Information and Communications Technology Ministry (ICT) told Reuters that the military ordered the shutdown to stop online criticism of the takeover.
"We have blocked Facebook temporarily and tomorrow we will call a meeting with other social media, like Twitter and Instagram, to ask for cooperation from them," said Surachai Srisaracam, permanent secretary of the ICT.
'I think it was probably the military testing the waters.'
Srisaracam added that the Facebook block was “to help us stop the spread of critical messages about the coup.”
Local media and journalists confirmed that Facebook was briefly unavailable on Wednesday afternoon. The Bangkok Post reported that users were unable to access Facebook for about 30 minutes and around 30 million Facebook accounts were suspended throughout the country.
The newspaper also reiterated the message from Srisaracam that the ICT had received orders from the military to block Facebook.
However, the military quickly denied that they had ordered the Facebook shutdown. An representative for the coup appeared on Thailand’s state television denying that the military had anything to do with users' inability to access the site and blaming technical problems with Facebook itself for the outage.
Video via: YouTube/ThaiPBS
Then Sirichan Ngathong, spokeswoman for the military council, said: “We have no policy to block Facebook and we have assigned the ICT ministry to set up a supervisory committee to follow social media and investigate and solve problems."
Soon after the military denied that they were responsible for the ban, Srisaracam backtracked on his statements that the ICT received orders from the military to shut down Facebook.
'Blocking social media is usually the best way to get people to start talking about the ban, usually on social media itself.'
KC Ortiz, a journalist in Thailand, told VICE News that Instagram, in addition to Facebook, was blocked for nearly an hour. “I think it was probably the military testing the waters,” Ortiz said.
Thailand would not be the first government to stop access to social media as a way of trying to stamp out dissent. Turkey received widespread condemnation after banning Twitter following anti-government protests throughout the country earlier this year.
But as demonstrated in Turkey, blocking social media is usually the best way to get people to start talking about the ban, usually on social media itself. According to the social analytics company Brandwatch, online mentions of the Facebook ban surged in Thailand shortly after the news of the outage spread.
Blocking media access has been a feature of the Thai coup since it started last week. One of the first orders the military carried out was to stop all foreign news reporting on television, including outlets such as the BBC, CNN, and Bloomberg.
In response to the blackout, many in Thailand turned to the internet to find out what was actually happening in the country. This could explain why Facebook and Instagram were targeted today.
Follow Olivia Becker on Twitter: @obecker928