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Poke War: Facebook’s Diplomats in Thailand

Help wanted: Facebook is seeking a Head of Public Policy in Bangkok, Thailand. Responsibilities include monitoring Thai politics, working with the government and private sector partners regarding technology policy, promoting the use of Facebook, and communicating Facebook’s policy agenda to national leaders. With this vaguely defined job opening, the company looks to add to its team of global corporate diplomats.

There are two parts of Facebook: the product and the company. Facebook’s website is like Yalta or Geneva or Paris: It’s a venue for diplomacy, not a party in negotiations. Nor is the company a surrogate for American values; the corporation has its own principles of free expression and its own worldview. The company speaks through its proxy diplomats. Facebook borrowed the Google diplomatic model, in which the foreign policy directors “represent the company outwardly” and “translate the policy environment back into the company.” Mark Zuckerberg echoed this objective when he traveled to China to negotiate with national authorities to promote the popularity of the site under Communist Party rule. Facebook policy directors are intended to do the same around the world: propagate the product, and encourage expression. In Bangkok, the dictatorial junta government has combatted ideas of dissent disseminated on Facebook, which is one of the only possible platforms for protest against the regime. Facebook’s global project aims to bolster this function of the social network as a force in the fight for democracy.

The military has held power in Thailand since the 2014 coup d’état, the 11th in the country’s record-breaking history. According to The Economist, the coup included dissolution of the Senate, detention of politicians, journalists, and intellectuals in army camps, and control of the Thai press corps — all of which was approved by the late king. General Prayuth Chan-ocha seized control of the state and became Prime Minister. An August 2016 national referendum ratified a new Constitution that reinforced the junta’s tight grip on the nation and entrenched the military in power, but in the process leading up to the referendum, campaigning against the draft constitution was banned. Only 55 percent of citizens turned out to vote, and there was substantial (39 percent) dissent.

The opposing population was largely made up of the rural poor, known as “red shirts,” and their billionaire advocate and former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Young people in Thailand also mounted a New Democracy Movement to fight the Constitution, with 43 civil and student groups trying to dispute the draft document — including a Facebook page with 86,509 likes. As protests across the country were easily stifled by police forces, the Thai people looked to Facebook to express political opposition — it was their best bet, and what seemed like the safest refuge for resistance. However, their online activism was swiftly met with sedition charges and jail sentences, which rendered the democratic movement powerless.

In 2014, The junta implored Facebook to censor anti-government content and blocked thousands of defamatory websites. After achieving little success, the junta passed the “Referendum Act” in 2016, which criminalized sedition against the draft Constitution and interference with the vote. Further, Article 116 of the Thai Criminal Code provides for minimum seven year prison sentences to those who “make apparent to the public by words, writing or any other means anything which is not an act within the purpose if the Constitution,” particularly on social networks like Facebook. When a 57-year-old woman posted a Facebook picture of a plastic red bowl with writings from a deposed Prime Minister, she was arrested. The junta detained at least eight more activists who criticized the draft constitution on the social network. The government was unrelenting, and Facebook became its battleground.

An effective Facebook policy director was missing from this equation. The Thai plea to Facebook for censorship in 2014 went unheeded, and consequently, prosecution of Facebook users ensued. The policy director is meant to make sure provisions like the Referendum Act never come into play. The director must negotiate with the junta to find an agreement that balances Facebook’s push for free civic expression with the governmental plea for data access. The team would work to expand Internet coverage to the 57 percent of the Thai population currently in the dark, in accordance with Facebook’s movement. Such an effort would make a potent difference — contingent upon the social network’s capacity to choose and deliver democracy.

Facebook tried to do the same in India. Ankhi Das is the Head of Facebook Public Policy there. The Indian government sought access to Facebook user data, and Das was sent to negotiate with the government to expand the reach of the company within the scope of India’s regulatory political purposes. Her primary goal was to “promote the use of Facebook for encouraging civic engagement, community organizing for elections and social causes.” As Facebook tried to implement its “Free Basics” program in India, Das was joined by company executives like Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg in lobbying Prime Minister Narendra Modi for Facebook’s expansion. Eventually, in early 2016, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) ruled in favor of net neutrality and gutted Facebook’s attempt to build foundations in India. Das and company failed to get the job done. Facebook’s policy director in Thailand cannot afford to make the same mistake.

Perhaps trusting Facebook with the responsibility to make change in Thailand puts too much power in the hands of a corporation. Perhaps Facebook’s involvement would be an unwanted imposition of Western ideas. Facebook’s interests might be monetarily aligned, but they happen to coincide with American and Western interests of free expression. The difficulty is balancing caution about corporations with concurrent advocacy for free speech. When it comes to Facebook in Thailand, free expression should win out, because the social network may be the Thai people’s best bet. An election is on the horizon for late 2017, and the stakes are too high for Facebook users to be repressed.

A policy director is necessary to give the social network a chance to do its work. In May 2009, VP of Global Communications, Marketing, and Public Policy at Facebook Elliott Schrage discussed the usage of the site for social and political change. He cited numerous examples: in Colombia, people protested the militant FARC movement. In Great Britain, students protested bank fees and charges. In the United States, Barack Obama built his brand and nurtured his campaign using Facebook outreach. Facebook is a platform for the John Stuart Mill “marketplace of ideas,” where the right viewpoint supposedly wins out. On Facebook, there still exists grassroots advocacy for democracy in Thailand, despite the government’s attempt to uproot anti-junta sentiment from Thai soil. Thailand’s marketplace of ideas is untapped and controlled by the omnipotent hand of its government, but that might be due to change.

No matter how much the government claims they are unperturbed, the junta’s detainment of Facebook activists reflects some paranoia. The junta incriminates free expression on Facebook and thus belittles Facebook’s company values. Facebook’s greatest strength is its marketplace of ideas, which can bring the Thai cause to the attention of democratically conscious citizens around the world and galvanize them to action. Facebook events of protests would sprout up, a wave of profile picture filters (albeit passive support) would wash over the site, and citizens would lobby their governments to intervene. When global news coverage does not suffice, Facebook is a substitute that amplifies a plea for democracy that reverberates on computers from Bangkok to Boston, Bratislava to Beirut.

The Thai people are only a few clicks away from exposure to anti-Constitution and anti-junta ideas. The political situation would be very different if those eight detained activists turned into millions. If the 39 percent who opposed the Constitution, and more who did not vote flooded the social network with anti-junta messages, it would be a call to activism for the rest of the world, and certainly warrant a “trending” label on the website. Facebook would lay the groundwork for global (and governmental) involvement by incorporating the people on the ground. In other words, they would foster public diplomacy.

Public diplomacy is a country’s transparent communication with the citizens of other nations in order to promote national interest, according to the USC Center on Public Diplomacy. Facebook is not a country, but it is a platform for the transparent exchange of ideas. In this case, Facebook allows for the dissenting Thai coalition to spread its message to the rest of the country and the world. As former dean of the Harvard Kennedy School Joseph Nye said, “In the information age, it’s not just whose army wins but whose story wins.” Facebook’s involvement in diplomatic bargaining would provide a lens for the dominant story in Thailand to shine through, whatever that story may be.

Moving forward, the best opportunity for change in Thailand is the next election, which is tentatively planned for late 2017. There remains hope for democracy in the country, and Facebook has the capacity to expound upon that feeling and make it a reality. Thailand is a nation at a crossroads, with a reckless government at the wheel and 67 million citizens in the passenger seat. Facebook has the opportunity to help navigate this turbulent time in Thailand.

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About the Author

Michael Bass '20 is the Co-Editor in Chief of the Brown Political Review.