Behind the scenes with Thailand's 'cyber-scouts'

Originally published at Siam Voices on May 11, 2011 AFP ran a story on Wednesday about Thailand's 'cyber-scouts', who patrol the internet for material deemed offensive to the monarchy. It follows the work and the motivations of one of the mostly young volunteers:

Wearing his special "cyber scout" polo shirt with pride, Thattharit Sukcharoen scans the Internet pages on his computer in search of remarks deemed offensive to Thailand's revered monarchy. He is one of several dozen volunteers recruited by the Thai justice ministry to patrol cyberspace in search of anybody violating the kingdom's strict lese majeste rules -- an offence punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

"My inspiration to be a cyber scout is the king. There are many ways to protect the institute, and this is one of them," Thattharit, a 39-year-old administrative worker at a school in Bangkok, told AFP. "Sometimes there are just fun conversations among teenagers and they think it's not important, but for those who love the royal institute, some comments that I see are not appropriate. I must report them to the authorities." (...)

According to the project's website, volunteers "will have a duty to monitor information and actions dangerous to the country's security and will protect, defend and hold the royal institute in esteem."

Students in particular are invited to sign up. Thattharit attended one day of training to become a cyber scout. "I learned about the history of the king, his majesty, and how divine he is ... and also how to use a computer, the Internet and Facebook," he said.

The project is in its infancy and so far Thattharit has not reported anybody to the authorities. He explained that if he finds comments deemed offensive to the king he plans to contact the person who posted them to first to warn them and give them a chance to change their views, before informing officials. "Not many people know about the project. They may think they're talking to a friend because I don't tell them I'm a cyber scout," he said. "I feel I am doing an important job. I can give back to the country."

"Thai 'cyber scouts' patrol web for royal insults", by AFP, May 11, 2011

We have previously blogged about the launch of the 'cyber-scout' initiative back last December, where the ministry of justice has organised an introductory seminar and laid out the objectives of the project, including first and foremost "observing [online] behavior that is deemed a threat to national security and to defend and protect the royal institution," and "promote the moral and ethics with the help of the volunteers, to ensure the correct behavior".

This reveals how the cyber scouts work (emphasised in bold above): They seem to roam around certain websites and social networks more or less incognito and look for seemingly insulting posts, only to step in, reveal themselves as a cyber scout and give out a warning "to change their views", otherwise the authorities will be informed - and regular readers know by now how severe the consequences are.

The same notion I had back last year still stands...

But it is quite clear that this is a general trend of over-emphasizing the loyalty by all means and more than a sudden urge to protect the royal institution against a perceived, invisible threat. And since the internet is a quite an anonymous place, it’s an even more frightening threat. Thus these mental and cultural barricades are built with the recruited man-power and the social dogma of loyalty – both off- and online. The term ‘Cyber Scout’ reflects some historical parallels to the ‘Village Scouts’ of the 1970s, which were set up for almost the same reasons in order to battle a perceived communist threat.

"Become a cyber-scout, clean up Thailand’s internet!", by Saksith Saiyasombut, Siam Voices, December 17, 2010

We will probably hear more about their work and their results pretty soon.

BONUS: AFP has posted the accompanying video report on the same topic with the same people involved: