BANGKOK – Citing a mandate to shut down key government and social institutions until the Yingluck Shinawatra administration surrenders power, Bangkok’s anti-government protest groups threatened today to occupy photo-based social media network Instagram with hundreds of millions of pictures of themselves.
“We will not back down from our promise to stop the country in its tracks,” said protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban from the rally stage on Rajdamnoen this morning. “We will see how the Thaksin regime operates when it can’t access Instagram for a week. This is not a bluff.”
Armed with iPhones, Samsung Galaxies, and HTC Driods, the estimated 250,000 protesters in the main protest sites as well as the occupied government office and TV station sites have already posted over 280 million images of themselves on Instagram, smiling while blowing whistles or making “V for victory” signs with their hands.
The popular social networking photo site has over 25 million registered accounts in Thailand alone, according to records released last year by parent company Facebook Inc. Although it is not known whether the posting of a billion images would cause the site to shut down, there exists precedent for such “denial of service” attacks succeeding.
“If a billion photos of upper-middle class female executives wearing designer black outfits were to be uploaded at the same time, the servers would probably be overwhelmed, denying all Thai users access to Instagram for a while,” said Rattana Boromchaideekorn, a technology analyst at Gartner Thailand. “It’s no different that the classic hacker botnet attack, only using carefully-filtered and cropped self-portraits instead of pings.”
Having already occupied dozens of government ministries and several television stations over the weekend, the opposition protest threats are being taken seriously by the government.
“This attack on Instagram is absolutely illegal under the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology Act,” said deputy prime minister Pracha Promnok. “It’s not even a wing of the government, and will only hurt the people of Thailand, who depend on Instagram to see what their friends are eating for lunch and what cute things the world’s cats are doing,” he continued.
“Instagram is one of the institutions that unite us as Thais, and attacking it is causing disharmony and strife.”
Caution even came from within the Democrat Party, where former MP and finance minister Korn Chatikavanik urged Suthep to re-consider such an escalation.
“Instagram is the center of our lives, and selfies are the main tool for Thais to express themselves,” he said. “Taking that away, and using the selfie as a weapon seems extreme to me.”
Despite please by the government and several neutral academics to hold Instagram above politics, Suthep insisted that the opposition was willing to make great sacrifices to achieve its goal of bringing down the Thaksin Shinawatra administration.
“We will give up Instagram. We will give up Facebook. We will give up LINE and What’s App, if it achieves our objective,” he announced to cheers. “We are armed with 20-megapixel cameras, we can zoom and blur backgrounds with our fingertips. We will create a tsunami of selfies that this world has never seen before!”
According to Thammasat University sociologist Amaranta Suveelakorn, the capacity for selfie-creation amongst the anti-government crowd is almost unprecedented.
“Thais, especially middle- and upper-class Bangkok Thais, possess a deadly combination of high-tech smartphones and tactless narcissism. As we have seen already with their tweets and Facebook postings, knowing little about Thai history or basic democratic principles doesn’t stop them from proudly posting images of themselves holding signs demanding an appointed government, with hashtags like ‘#saving democracy’ or ‘#ilovemypeople.’ Such a person is capable of posting up to 300 selfies per hour, maybe more.”
Amarant warns that not just Instagram, but Bangkok’s entire communications network, could be threatened by an all-out selfie binge.
“The mobile networks have to carry the data, and the ISP backbones have to transfer it to the undersea cables,” she said. “If every self-aggrandizing anti-Thaksinite started posting, say, a selfie of him or herself with every combination of friends and poses and facial expression, the entire system would be severely stressed.”
“If they start posting selfie videos, we could be in real trouble,” she added.
Others, however, believe Suthep’s threat is empty.
“For most of these protestors, showing off themselves at these protests is more important than the protest itself,” said Sulak Sivaraksa, academic and founder of the Sathirakoses-Nagapradeepa Foundation. “It’s a hi-so party of false idealism, and the moment they lose the ability to admire themselves being political, they will stop pretending to be political.”
“There’s no way that Suthep could risk destroying Instagram,” he concluded. “That would be like setting fire to your own house to attack your neighbor with smoke.”
Yet on the streets, many protesters seemed determined to move ahead with the plan.
“Posting more selfies is exactly what we need to do to show that we care about our country,” said protester Pompreenak Wanrudee, finance director of a securities company on Silom.
“I have seen the future of democracy in Thailand,” she added. “It’s me!”