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In Thailand, it’s time to stop online anonymity in political activism

Facebook-vs-Anonymous

Over the past several weeks in Thailand, there has been no news hotter than the ongoing public protests against a recent proposed bill in Parliament to grant amnesty to former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, allowing him to return to Thailand while avoiding the prison sentences from the convictions against him.

Even Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt was asked about his opinion on the situation when he visited Bangkok last week.

Social media has emerged as the main channel for Thais to provide information and receive live updates, make announcements about protest locations, or simply share their opinions and advocate for the political party they support. Those who are against the bill have turned their profile pictures black with the message ”against the amnesty bill” displayed to show their opposition.

Anonymity drowns out the truth

However, these online protestors are hesitant to use their real identities, and on the whole it will drag down the quality of civil debate and action in the country.

I’m not referring here to traditional nicknames that 99 percent of Thais have. I’m talking about handles such as “I hate Thaksin”, “Fight for Thailand”, or just “Cutie cute cute”. It has been a norm for years for Thais to use such nicknames. This partly results from the “save face” characteristic where Thais generally don’t like to disclose much information in public so as not to risk judgement or backlash.

While being anonymous is often harmless, it has implications when political unrest happens: People post rumors, news, or opinions with no accountability. While there is no real method to substantiate rumors, that doesn’t stop them from going viral.

Of course, such practices are a violation of Facebook’s policies. A Facebook representative confirms:

Facebook has always been based on a real-name culture. This leads to greater accountability and a safer and more trusted environment for our users. It’s a violation of our policies to use a fake name or operate under a false identity, and we encourage people to report anyone they think is doing this, either through the report links we provide on the site, or through the contact forms in our Help Centre. We have a dedicated User Operations team that reviews these reports and takes actions as necessary.

I’m not saying Thais should go and report their friends just yet. But accountability and transparency is incredibly important, and these issues need to be considered in political activism, especially alongside Facebook’s policies.

Nothing to fear

While Thailand has its share of unrest in the last few years, it is a functioning constitutional monarchy with elections, a very active parliament, and civil society. If activists have a strong opinion, they shouldn’t be afraid to speak up in an environment like Thailand where the risk of political retaliation is relatively low, especially if you’re a regular member of civil society. In fact, putting your name out there boosts the credibility of what you say.

Thailand is not like China, where activists use pseudonyms to protect themselves and need to reach outside the Great Firewall to read uncensored social media. The Chinese government has been pushing to require users to verify their identities on the internet, but Thailand need not go down that direction.

We can’t rely on Facebook either, as they don’t have the resources to adequately police this policy. As such, we need to be aware of the implications of this fake name approach on a trusted social network where people receive relayed first-hand accounts of events, where anonymity promotes political bullying and allows misinformation to spread more easily.

When real names are used, it makes people think before they post.

(Image credit: ahitagni.com)

(Editing by Terence Lee)



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