Cyberspace the new anti-graft battleground

THAILAND - Fighting corruption was, until recently, one of the loneliest jobs. A small band of graft-busters would typically battle to scrutinise records, but their progress would be snail-paced, hampered by their own lack of expertise and the influence of powerful people behind the scenes.

No more: Gone are the days when graft-fighters struggled alone. The rise of the social media has produced a new era and a new battleground: cyberspace. The online networks allow information to flow freely between "citizen investigators", experts and others in the know, all under the shield of anonymity. Although the era is just dawning, the positive signs in Thailand are clear.

Take the rice price-pledging scheme. Long before the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) launched its probe, the Internet was buzzing with doubts about the scheme. Photos of rotten rice and a collapsed warehouse went viral online. Netizens were scorning senior officials' statements on the so-called G2G (government-to-government) deals long before it was established that they did not, in fact, exist. Meanwhile information and explanatory graphics from leading academics and economists have been doing the social-media rounds.

The rice scheme's complex and murky operation has been laid bare in a language the layman can understand. Running in parallel with the social-media buzz is the NACC probe, which also covers the actions of caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

Some are sceptical over whether the social media have any real influence, but the role they play in battling graft should not be underestimated. Many heads are definitely better than one, and netizens add teeth to the check-and-balance process vital to strong democracy. Online campaigns also snowball, with voices from all walks of life adding their opinions and expertise.

As more political activists, campaigners and ordinary citizens join the fight, graft-busters' fear of "dark influences" lessens and their confidence grows. With a force that can number in the millions, campaigns against corruption can become unstoppable.

And with the quantity of people comes speed of communication among them. The Internet has brought millions together and granted them a political voice, motivating masses and reinvigorating efforts to fight corruption. No longer can verdicts be casually twisted to favour powerful people. The social networks allow people to absorb the information long before the verdicts are delivered. The online jury sees immediately whether the ruling is backed up by the evidence.

Certainly the social media are not a magic bullet to bring down corruption. Netizens can and do sometimes disseminate false and erroneous information. But as we have seen time and again, the online masses are usually quick to spot misinformation and correct it. The social networks' own check-and-balance system is a powerful and democratic one.

Thailand's official anti-graft mechanisms must recognise the important role that the social media play in this fight. Monitoring information circulated on the Net regarding scandals should be an integral part of the authorities' job. The online networks are a potential source of tip-offs, information that otherwise might not have caught their attention or which does not appear in the traditional media.

Although in their infancy, the social media are playing a central role in the anti-corruption battle. As Thomas Jefferson, one of America's founding fathers, said, "The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right.

"And were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

Perhaps Jefferson might have said the same about the social media.