In December, Thai Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan was shielding his eyes from the sun when a photograph exposed much more. His raised arm made the sleeve of his medal-bedecked military uniform retract, revealing a wrist adorned with an unmilitary-like decoration — a swank watch (his little finger was also adorned, with a diamond ring).
Enter digital sleuthing site CSI LA — its logo features a picture of Breaking Bad’s Walter White — run by a Thai expat in Los Angeles. The site pinned the watch down as a Richard Mille, worth around $90,000. Then, it scoured past photos, finding levels of bling unexplainable for a public servant: Richard Milles, Patek Philippes and Rolexes were among at least 25 different watches that totaled more than $1 million, according to CSI LA, none of them declared as assets by Prawit. Newspapers took note. Investigations were called. Street art appeared in Bangkok featuring a clock with Prawit’s face in the center. Now, experts say, the politician’s career is practically over, and mostly because of a Facebook page.
In the U.S., social media has faced accusations of contributing to a coarsening of the political discourse and distortion of facts. But in Thailand, untraditional media like Facebook pages and message boards — while still contributing their share of digital sewage — are increasingly helping bring to light stories their mainstream counterparts have shied away from in politically and economically precarious times. Three years after a coup led by General Prayut Chan-o-cha — now the prime minister — toppled the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, a series of regulatory and commercial pressures have left the country’s mainstream media timid, especially when political issues are concerned, says Edgardo Legaspi, executive director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance. And it will only get worse, Legaspi predicts, as the government seeks “more strategic controls of the media.”
They [the government] like to use words. But right now with social media, it’s all about facts.
David, CSI LA
But CSI LA is part of a wave of crowd-sourced platforms that are emerging as an alternative to Thailand’s official narrative and trying to hold the government accountable. There’s E Jan, Drama Addict and Queen of Spades, all based in Thailand. They vary from the more serious or political to the gossipy. The Bangkok Post named these “dark side” pages its Person of the Year in 2017, saying “their activities have shaken up society and rattled the traditional practices of journalists — even exposed their shortcomings and failure to do their duty in this draconian climate.” These webpages and platforms have broken stories that then make it into the mainstream and followed up on cases lost in the news cycle. Either way, professional journalists have their eyes trained on them for scoops. And so does the government.
“Power to the people,” says David, who runs CSI LA (he spoke to OZY on the condition that his full identity wouldn’t be revealed). He cites such instances as when his team of investigators kept the heat up on a probe into a murder at popular tourist spot Koh Tao, and when they helped narrow down the search for the 2015 Erawan Shrine bomber (20 people died in the attack). “That’s how you get back at the man.”
After the junta under Prayut took control, the government expanded strict lèse-majesté laws against insulting the monarchy. Recently, the state announced it would prosecute not only those posting content that offended the king but also those viewing such content. In addition to strict censorship laws, there are regulatory means to kill stories, as well as hard libel laws.
Commercial interests have also contributed to the chilling of a free press says Todd Ruiz, editor at Thai news site Khao Sod English. “The PR people call all the shots in the media here,” he says. “They send you a press release and expect you to write a story about it. And people do.” Fundamental journalistic practices are ignored, and the “reality” that the mainstream Thai media puts out is “so contorted and stretched … it doesn’t make sense to people,” Ruiz says. After all, he adds, people turn to the media to make sense of the world. “And they know bullshit.”
It was that sense — of “knowing bullshit” — that led to the creation of CSI LA. CSI stands for “critical thinking, skeptics and investigation,” according to its Facebook page, which boasts nearly 800,000 followers. David, a data scientist by training, takes his work seriously, often describing his page as a “voice of the people.” He describes the crowdsourcing technique he utilizes as “beautiful and powerful.” Since he started the platform — soon after the coup — David has been approached with tips by victims and police alike.
The impact of these platforms isn’t surprising — Bangkok, after all, is the city with the largest number of Facebook users in the world. In some cases, social media sites have helped by amplifying rape and sexual harassment stories to try to force a police response, says Ruiz. On other occasions, though, these platforms ask questions others aren’t pressing for answers to. “A lot of it is just discussion and debate and memes. But along the way, they will ask the questions that aren’t being asked or push an issue that isn’t being pushed,” says Ruiz.
The spread of these social media platforms carries risks too. Crowdsourcing, while working wonders at times, can lead to paranoid and dangerous misidentification in moments of crisis — as happened on Reddit after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. That’s why, Ruiz argues, trained journalists remain critical for Thailand. “There are many courageous Thais with hearts to do the right thing,” he says. “The future is in capable hands if they get the chance to do what they can do.”
The path forward for these dark side pages won’t be easy either. Thailand has created a cyberwarfare unit to investigate social media crimes, and several Thai nationals have been arrested for social media use. But the junta is behind in this race, David says, because of its inability to understand new media and its power. “They still use the old-style propaganda,” he says. “They like to use words. But right now with social media, it’s all about facts.”
Explore the world
This year, OZY is going Around the World, bringing you untold stories from every single country on the map, one day at a time, to introduce you to new people, new trends and new places.