Thailand on Friday opened a new center to combat the spread of “fake news” online, amid warnings from human rights groups that the government could use the facility to muffle dissent and target its critics.
Puttipong Punnagun, Thailand’s minister for digital economy and society, gave reporters a tour of the Anti-Fake News Center, which was set up like a TV newsroom with multiple giant flat-screen monitors showing pie charts that track trending social-media hashtags.
“The center is not intended to be a tool to support the government or any individual,” Puttipong told reporters. “We just want to reduce the number of fake news [reports and postings] and to educate people to have discretion before circulating them.”
Almost 40 internet-savvy staffers monitor online traffic on a range of topics, such as disasters, the economy, health, morality and national security.
State-owned CAT Telecom, which runs Thailand’s digital infrastructure, is behind the technical arrangements. The national police’s Cyber Task Force augments the center with a desk where complaints are logged for future action.
Puttipong said the center, which has its own Facebook page, monitors postings on major social-media platforms, including YouTube and Twitter. The center would label the alleged fake or misleading news and then publish them on its website www.antifakenewscenter.com he said.
Any materials deemed to violate the country’s Computer Crimes Act will be forwarded to the Technology Crime Suppression Division, which has led the investigation of Thai activists in recent weeks.
On Oct. 8, the division arrested and charged a 25-year-old pro-democracy activist for a computer crimes violation after he allegedly posted a screenshot of a tweet about the frustration of Thais with roads being closed whenever a member of the royalty would pass by.
Karn Pongpraphapan’s hash-tagged #royalmotorcade topped the trend on the Thai language Twitter a week ago. His criticism that the royal entourage was adding to the traffic congestion in the capital was widely circulated on social media, but officials said his claims had been verified by the government as false.
Puttipong said members of a committee – composed of staff members of the Thai News Agency, the Thai Journalists Association and representatives of the government and private sector – would verify whether the news should be classified as fake or misleading.
But rights advocates warned that the center would merely consolidate a draconian censorship apparatus used by the junta during the past five years. They said the government could also use the center to keep a close eye on public discussion about the monarchy.
“It is yet another censorship tool, not different from what happened under the repressive environment … under military rule,” Sunai Phasuk, a Thai researcher for Human Rights Watch, told BenarNews.
Sunai was referring to the junta led by former army chief Prayuth Chan-o-cha, who toppled the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra and installed himself as prime minister in May 2014, before the March general election that installed him as a civilian leader this year. Critics said that election was engineered to keep Prayuth in power.
During Prayuth’s tenure, at least 98 people were charged with Lese-Majeste, a strict law that prohibits comments deemed as insulting to the royal family. Most of the charges emanated from online postings.
“Keeping the internet free is especially challenging when even the most innocuous-sounding regulations are ripe for exploitation,” Sunai told BenarNews.
“The Thai government’s anti-fake news center has since August been acting like the Ministry of Truth – defending and promoting state propaganda, while suppressing and prosecuting dissenting opinions,” he said.