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Sunday 3 November 2019

Battling fake news in Thailand

Saleem Zahid. 

In battling fake news, Thailand has just upped the ante. By unveiling a center dedicated to finding and reacting to fake news online, it has offered hope to witch hunt survivors and, at the same time, spooked free speech activists. 

The stated areas in which the center will counter misinformation – and, of course, disinformation – are economy, finance, health, government policy and natural disasters. Whenever fake news will affect peace and security of the nation, the center will come into play. 

Concerns by rights groups

Rights groups and opposition political parties have expressed strong resentment against the anti-fake news center. Fearing a silencing of government critics, they are calling it a censorship tool in the hands of a government that doesn’t qualify as a true democracy in their view. 

Meanwhile, sending a sigh of relief, the ministers clarified that the center will not have any powers of arrest or legal action and later that it will not be “a tool to support the government or any individual”. If a false news item is detected through the center’s social listening system, it will be flagged to relevant authorities and corrections will be issued through the center’s social media platforms.

Still, an encouraging development 

Like many Asian countries, literacy levels in Thailand are not as high as those in advanced nations. Social media usage, the main vehicle of fake news, is meanwhile extremely high. This combination offers a fertile ground for the spread of unverified information. 

The developing world has been especially affected by the rise of fake news. A spate of lynchings in India, accusations on an array of entities in Sri Lanka after the Eastern bombings and, most distressingly, a genocide in Myanmar caused by the radicalization of a community otherwise considered peaceful.

Radicalism fueled by the internet is one of the main problems of the day since it quickly morphs to violence. Religious extremism in the Middle East was largely stimulated with propaganda content of extremists with half-baked facts mixed with entirely fabricated statistics. 

In the developed world, radicalism has mostly been race-based, yet instilled majorly by the fake news machinery. The algorithms of social media websites, that mold our newsfeeds into what we are supposed to like the most, do not differentiate between a healthy and unhealthy piece of content. Running in a closed hamster wheel of consuming radical content has the power of reinforcing a perfectly sane individual’s fringe ideas into hardcore beliefs and turning him into an extremist. 

On social media, the two most common sellable commodities are emotions and conspiracy theories. A growing number of people share news items without reading them because of strong emotions in the headlines or in the images attached with them. Likewise, conspiracy theories, sometimes outrageously intriguing, are shared by people thinking they are propagating a new angle to an issue or while simply considering themselves the first ones to break it to their social circle.

Thailand’s problem with fake news

Thailand has its peculiar problems with fake news. With laws that criminalize defamation of the royal family, the spread of incorrect information has been a source of polarization in the society. The same has been creating problems during the times of natural disasters and financial crises. 

Popular messaging apps in the country frequently hold “Stop Fake News” workshops aimed at enabling their users to stay safe on online platforms and check the propagation of “fake news” and misinformation.  

The paradox of battling fake news

When newspapers published false stories, their number was few and the public quickly earmarked them for resorting to such tactics. 

Now, however, every social media user is a media outlet in himself. He can start publishing the moment he logs on to the internet and, with the right ingredients, spread information, right or wrong, across the world. This unfathomable volume of publishers makes it important to keep a check on falsehood and fight for the truth. 

But who exactly is going to be the vanguard in the fight for the truth? Governments with their insatiable desires of stifling dissent and political opposition? Internet users with their influencing power behind a cloak of anonymity? Or the social media companies that have amassed powers on par with those of governments? 

This is a paradox the world is presently stuck in. Whether to let free speech flow into realms of falsehood or to introduce checks that have the potential to be misused. 

The biggest role in curbing fake news lies with the platforms that are used to spread them, – that is, the social media companies. In their quest for growth, they have expanded their user base to such a level that they are unable to moderate the content. Although Facebook boasts employing nearly 30,000 moderators it is still far from overcoming this problem.

The corporate sector worked hard to introduce a culture of social responsibility. But with the rise of internet 2.0, the preference of several companies shifted to expansion from their pledge to keep their customers in confidence. 

Some positive developments

After a considerable outrage over alleged foreign interference in the US presidential election of 2016, political advertising on social media has been a topic of fierce debate. Some candidates of the upcoming election have been accused of spreading lies in their advertisements, while others, to prove the point, deliberately put false information in their ads. 

Seeing the pressure developing, Twitter has announced an end to political advertising on its platform. Since it too has a large user base with limited resources of fact-checking, this is a positive development. 

Facebook, on the other hand, believes that it is for the citizens to decipher false information from the correct. Experts believe that the company cannot take this stance too far and will eventually succumb to the pressure building from politicians, media and its users. 

Establishing anti-fake news centers and introducing truth checking mechanisms by governments is a measure in the right direction only if the right to free speech is not suppressed. Equally important is the citizens’ right to access correct information. And for that, the responsibility lies with the government.

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