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Tinder Is the Latest Social Media Battleground in Thai Protests

Authorities are struggling as protesters break anti-monarchy taboos.

By , a researcher at the Australia Strategic Policy Institute, and
Thai protesters attend a rally outside of the Thai parliament in Bangkok on Sept. 24.
Thai protesters attend a rally outside of the Thai parliament in Bangkok on Sept. 24.
Thai protesters attend a rally outside of the Thai parliament in Bangkok on Sept. 24. Allison joyce/Getty Images

Thailand’s rising pro-democracy movement has seen hundreds of thousands of protestors take to the streets in fierce opposition to the military government and the royal establishment this year. A key part of the movement’s unprecedented growth is the popularity of social media in the country, where about 75 percent of people are active social media users. But platforms like Twitter and Facebook are subject to increasing pressure by the government and authorities, posing a threat to a young movement that heavily relies on digital activism to spread and thrive. Perhaps the most surprising targets are dating apps such as Tinder, where government power is intruding into even relatively private online spaces.

The recent wave of protests has three core demands: the dissolution of the parliament, ending the intimidation of citizens, and a new constitution. Some protesters have issued a more controversial set of 10 demands for reforming the monarchy and its highly patriarchal structures. But the silencing of dissenting voices is a long-lasting tradition in Thailand. Social media and other forms of digital communications are strictly monitored by police, military, security agencies and private ultra-royalist groups. In a number of cases, publishing content online that “causes public unrest” or “threatens national security” has led to public harassment, arbitrary detention, and even enforced disappearances.

The current military regime, which took power in the 2014 coup under Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, has increasingly enforced its strict cybersecurity, sedition, and lèse-majesté laws. Offenses recently added include posting a satirical comment of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s dog, sharing a BBC profile of King Maha Vajiralongkorn on Facebook, and producing an anti-government rap music video that reached nearly 100 million views on YouTube. Last month, the Thai government attempted to block more than 2,200 websites and social media accounts ahead of pro-democracy protests in one weekend alone.

Thailand’s rising pro-democracy movement has seen hundreds of thousands of protestors take to the streets in fierce opposition to the military government and the royal establishment this year. A key part of the movement’s unprecedented growth is the popularity of social media in the country, where about 75 percent of people are active social media users. But platforms like Twitter and Facebook are subject to increasing pressure by the government and authorities, posing a threat to a young movement that heavily relies on digital activism to spread and thrive. Perhaps the most surprising targets are dating apps such as Tinder, where government power is intruding into even relatively private online spaces.

The recent wave of protests has three core demands: the dissolution of the parliament, ending the intimidation of citizens, and a new constitution. Some protesters have issued a more controversial set of 10 demands for reforming the monarchy and its highly patriarchal structures. But the silencing of dissenting voices is a long-lasting tradition in Thailand. Social media and other forms of digital communications are strictly monitored by police, military, security agencies and private ultra-royalist groups. In a number of cases, publishing content online that “causes public unrest” or “threatens national security” has led to public harassment, arbitrary detention, and even enforced disappearances.

The current military regime, which took power in the 2014 coup under Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, has increasingly enforced its strict cybersecurity, sedition, and lèse-majesté laws. Offenses recently added include posting a satirical comment of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s dog, sharing a BBC profile of King Maha Vajiralongkorn on Facebook, and producing an anti-government rap music video that reached nearly 100 million views on YouTube. Last month, the Thai government attempted to block more than 2,200 websites and social media accounts ahead of pro-democracy protests in one weekend alone.

Some of these platforms have implemented stricter moderation regimes to comply with the Thai government, while others have risked the legal consequences of challenging such restrictions. Despite the threats, protestors are utilizing every means possible to promote their pro-democracy message—including Tinder.

Recently, several Thais claimed their Tinder profiles were restricted or suspended after sharing pro-democracy content. Tinder profiles are publicly accessible, and some young Thais have been using them to spread the cause by leaving messages such as “no royalists here” and “freedom for Thailand” on their bios. One user revealed that they were banned by Tinder after sharing a link to the movement’s 10 pro-democracy demands. Another said an image containing a QR code linked to a constitutional amendment petition was censored for violating the dating app’s terms of service. The examples are many, but Tinder has yet to provide an official statement on its actions. According to Tinder’s community guidelines, profiles may be removed if they are found to be set up for the sole purpose of “political campaign,” but the app also states that its goal is to “allow users to express themselves freely as long as it doesn’t offend others.”

This may be a new development for Tinder, but it’s an old challenge for other platforms. Twitter has arguably been the most popular social media platform for young Thais to spread their message via tweets and hashtags due to its virality, despite distrust and evidence that the platform is collaborating with the authorities to reveal user identities and help facilitate arrests. Twitter has allowed the Thai government to request the censorship of “culturally sensitive” content back when it introduced a censorship initiative specific to selected countries in 2012.

Similarly, Thai activists have been utilizing Facebook’s private group feature. This placed the platform at odds with the Thai government when the authorities requested that the anti-establishment Royalist Marketplace group, with over 1 million members, be taken down. After conceding victory to the authorities by banning the group and geoblocking other dissenting content, Facebook announced that it would legally challenge the request. A media statement by the company said: “Requests like this are severe, contravene international human rights law, and have a chilling effect on people’s ability to express themselves.” While this is the first time formal legal action is being pursued between the government and a global social media company, Thai authorities have repeatedly pressured Facebook to block sensitive content over the years and often succeeded.

A recent report, co-written by one of us, by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute highlights how the Chinese video-streaming app TikTok has also not been immune to Thailand’s strict internet restrictions. The report includes a collection of hashtags related to the Thai royal establishment that are restricted globally on the platform. For instance, hashtags such as #IWon’tGraduateWithTheMonarchy and #WhyDoWeNeedAKing in Thai are widely used to promote the cause of protest but have been censored on TikTok.

Social media platforms wield significant power to shape political discussion, not only in Thailand but across the globe. As political turning points like the Thai protests take place, these platforms are powerful instruments to influence social processes and should be accountable for protecting the rights of their users. The public is increasingly wary of these tech giants’ hypocrisies and inconsistencies with content moderation, as they often struggle to contain harmful content or hate speech but are quick to act under governmental pressures.

Censorship has not deterred protesters in Thailand from risking their livelihoods and breaking their silence on the government—and on the monarchy, a line that was uncrossable until very recently. However many social media platforms it might draft into repression, the Thai establishment is facing a national legitimacy crisis that will not be easy to overcome.

Daria Impiombato is a researcher at the Australia Strategic Policy Institute.

Tracy Beattie is a research intern at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

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