People in Thailand distrustful of Twitter are flocking to a crypto social network instead

Flying off.
Flying off.
Image: Reuters/Dado Ruvic
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Sarinee Achavanuntakul’s final tweet was short: “Say goodbye to Twitter and meet at Minds,” she wrote last Thursday (May 21).

Like many other Thais, the prominent writer and social critic had grown wary and distrustful of Twitter over a recent string of developments on the platform that sparked privacy concerns. Last week, she joined a massive migration of Thai users to Minds, an open-source and decentralized platform that prides itself on being transparent about how it manages data and revenue—users receive “tokens” based on interactions and time spent on the service. The platform saw a spike of 100,000 new Thai users in a single day last week, its founder told Coconuts Bangkok, causing the service to crash temporarily. There are now more than 200,000 Minds users in Thailand, according to the company.

For years, Twitter has played a central role in Thailand’s political activism space. Military-backed governments, harsh laws restricting speech, and a heavily censored media drove citizens to social networks, with Twitter being one of the most popular platforms. The anonymity of Twitter—unlike Facebook, which requires users to register under their real names—meant that people could speak their minds more freely without fear of running afoul of rules like the country’s strict lèse majesté laws.

Just last month, Thai Twitter users sparked a war against Chinese nationalist trolls, giving rise to a pan-Asian “milk tea alliance” with Hong Kong and Taiwan netizens. And earlier this month, the hashtag #WhyDoWeNeedAKing became a top Twitter trend in Thailand as people vented their outrage against the king for traveling to Germany amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“Twitter has been the forum for online criticism, for dissidents to raise their voice,” said James Buchanan, a PhD candidate studying Southeast Asia politics and social movements in Thailand. “It’s been a space to vent grievances at the government, or anything happening in society. Twitter is the place to be.”

But recent events have prompted an exodus of Thais from Twitter. The most proximate cause was an update to the platform’s privacy policy on May 19, set to take effect globally next month, allowing Twitter to share device-level data like a user’s IP address with business partners. The policy update came just days after Twitter launched an official Twitter Thailand account, with an accompanying blog post noting that Twitter has partnered with local NGOs and the government. To Thai Twitter users, that was a huge red flag, sparking fears that incriminating user information could be shared with the government.

“Twitter used to be a place where you could say anything more or less,” said Sarinee, who’s also a member of digital rights advocacy group Thai Netizen Network. Now she fears that the platform may no longer be a safe space for dissent. It didn’t help that the newly set up official Twitter Thailand account was “very tone deaf, boring… using official language,” she added.

A Twitter spokesperson said that the company is “committed to serving an open and public conversation in Thailand and will continue to be transparent” in its efforts.

Twitter’s troubles in Thailand go back further than this month’s privacy policy changes, however. Last February, a Thai Twitter user was arrested for allegedly posting a tweet that insulted the monarchy. It was the first arrest directly linked to a tweet, according to Buchanan, sending shivers through the Thai Twitter community.

Meanwhile, it appeared that the government was taking an increasingly active role in monitoring Twitter activity. “In recent months, people started to notice that young users who have been critical of the monarchy” on Twitter received visits from the police at home, said Sarinee. Fear had already been building among Thailand’s Twitter users, and the new privacy policy was the final straw.

Whether enough Thai users will flock to Minds and use it frequently enough to make the platform a prime digital gathering space is an open question for now, though this week’s introduction of the Thai language to both its Android and iOS versions will make the transition easier. The company also said that its servers have been upgraded since last week’s crash, and “everything has been totally stable since the initial surge.” Founded in 2015 by American entrepreneur Bill Ottman, the service currently has 2.5 million registered users worldwide, according to Minds.

Buchanan said that a similar migration happened four years ago, when a number of activists in Thailand ditched Facebook for Minds. But there wasn’t a critical mass of users jumping ship for Minds to gain proper traction.

“Just the fact that Minds is crashing right now, I don’t expect much from it,” Buchanan said shortly after the Minds outage last week. “And also because we’ve been here before.” 

But Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, a collective of lawyers and activists that has documented multiple instances of state persecution of social media users, thinks it’s too soon to discount a future in which Minds displaces Twitter as Thailand’s dominant social network for online activism.

“Imagine 10 years ago, Twitter was tiny compared to Facebook, but nowadays the blue bird can shape Thailand’s politics agenda,” said Montana Duangprapa, a member of the group.

This story has been updated with user numbers for Minds, and a statement from Thai Lawyers for Human Rights.