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Virtual Diplomacy is Real in Thailand

11 July 2023

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By Mr Kavi Chongkittavorn, Senior Communications Advisor: The past several months have been tumultuous times in Thai diplomacy, with virtual diplomacy constantly challenging real-world diplomacy. Several incidents have occurred involving neighbouring countries, friends and allies. They all started off simply as casual online conversations or Instagram posts, then suddenly, they could quickly have turned toxic and evolved into diplomatic squabbling.

This comes at a time when the country is in transition from the Prayut administration to a new but yet-to-be-formed coalition government. It is an ideal situation for any ill-intentioned elements to try out their new disinformation campaigns.

The proliferation of virtual news and diplomatic falsehoods on social media has created new challenges for Thai diplomacy, especially pertaining to countries that share borders with Thailand. Given their proximity and long-standing historical and cultural ties, it is easy to stir up a hornet's nest about any issue, be it political, economic, social or other forms of intangible heritage. Sometimes, ties with neighbouring countries are so sensitive that certain comments in the Thai media are treated seriously as if they represent official voices.

One frequently asked question is: What would be the best way to educate the Thai public about the country's foreign relations so that they would not be sucked into a whirlpool of falsehoods? To answer this question, one has to understand an emerging trend in Thailand's external relations. In the past, the diplomatic domains were confined to a handful of highly trained and skilled diplomats who spent all their lives dealing with foreign countries to protect the country's sovereignty and interests. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs used to be the key player.

However, today, foreign policy decision-making is no longer in the exclusive hands of the Saranrom Palace. Other agencies, known and unknown, seem to be able to shape the country's diplomatic pathways. Of late, it is notable that when it comes to ties with foreign countries, in particular major powers' rivalry and neighbouring countries, what happens online risks becoming reality.

During the first half of this year, there was a stream of falsehoods and disinformation about foreign intervention in the Thai electoral campaign, the push-back of foreign workers from neighbouring countries, plans to set up foreign bases, efforts to divide ASEAN on Myanmar, the severance of ties with dictatorial countries and a referendum for the three southernmost provinces. These falsehoods were debunked subsequently, but the damage had been done. Countermeasures and narratives are urgently needed.

Upon close scrutiny, one can observe that the Thai public's interest in foreign affairs has been boosted by the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war and the dramatic spins added on by local media personalities. The daily updates and details of the weapons being used in the war have been in the local reports and analyses.

It was only recently that some Thai journalists actually went to the battlefield inside Ukraine to get first-hand experience and photo opportunities. Their reports added to the growing enthusiasm for Thai foreign policy watchers. It is not surprising that local news commentators have also chosen foreign policy issues that can tie in with domestic politics.

Such hybrid topics always generate audience interest and, most importantly, feed right into the Thai general psyche relating to conspiratorial undertakings. Almost all foreign issues involving Thailand have these ingredients. Thailand, formerly Siam, managed to survive Western colonisation. The public often has in mind the notion they must not lower their guard. Otherwise, external forces may take advantage of their country. Over here, the equivalent of a dark state is amnard muad (dark power) or mue ti sam (third hand). For instance, apart from just the Russia-Ukraine war, the Myanmar crisis has also been dominating the media headlines that have these conspiratorial beliefs. Quite often, local 'commentators also gobble up Western narratives without any pretence or questions. Popular media personalities covet any 'content' that can fill their slots on a daily basis.

To tackle the omnipresent digital diplomacy, there is an urgent need for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to expand its current anti-fake news unit and equip it with tools and human resources to counter disinformation about Thailand's external relations from conspiratorial collaborators. Most of the time, the ministry is in damage control mode in responding to misinformation or disruptive news. The Ministry of Digital Economy and Society (DES) normally serves as the coordination centre for all government ministries when dealing with fake news, but the unit at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs also has an important task to verify and fact-check information sources concerning foreign relations.

Furthermore, apart from the official circle, the ministry must garner help from non-government players, especially web-based monitoring organisations, influencers and content providers. They are the gatekeepers that could provide an early warning to the concerned authorities whenever there is fake news that requires fact-checking and quick verification. Of late, the ministry has cooperated closely with local fact-checking organisations such as CoFact Organization (Collaborative Fact Checking).

In the meantime, it is essential that top decision-makers take the views of conspiracy theorists more seriously because of their lingering repercussions. To stay ahead of the curve and catch up with online manipulation, the ministry needs additional tech experts and other professionals to help as they have powerful tools to follow certain content creators. Otherwise, it will be difficult for the ministry to counter falsehoods posted online.

The next important task is to develop a new mindset among bureaucrats regarding the urgency and necessity of strategic communications. Broadly speaking, Thai governments, in general, have not had an overriding communications strategy, as this would be the responsibility of the Public Relations Department and assigned spokespersons. The prime minister of the day would have to be responsible for whatever he or she wants to say. It is not surprising that typical Thai leaders often maintain a conversational style with the Thai media during press conferences and Q&A sessions.

A more holistic approach to countering misinformation also requires improving the accessibility of ministerial officers to the public. Both sides have to converse and increase engagement more systematically to stem fake news from even forming. Thai authorities must learn how to adapt and coexist with Thai media on all platforms. With the proliferation of social media and messengers, all ministries must have their "content"-- facts and information -- ready for dissemination as quickly as possible. Frequently, certain crucial information is missing or withheld out of fear of reprimand should higher authorities disapprove or identify sources who are speaking without permission.

More specifically, with more information, the public will have improved literacy on foreign affairs and be able to get rid of bogus content themselves.  This is a tall order, but it will be a good start. Therefore, communication strategies that keep up with the 24-7 information cycle can fight and sustain the narratives or even optics the country desires. Otherwise, virtual diplomacy could take root and subsequently cause catastrophic damage to national interests.

This opinion piece was written by ERIA's Senior Communications Advisor, Mr Kavi Chongkittavorn, and has been published in Bangkok PostClick here to subscribe to the monthly newsletter.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are purely those of the authors and may not in any circumstances be regarded as stating an official position of the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia.

(Photo credit: Arnun Chonmahatrakool)

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