Fight fake news with education
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Fight fake news with education

The fight against fake news is becoming more challenging, but a lot can be done by educating people in how to identify unreliable sources and fact checking. Just creating laws against people who spread such information doesn't fix the problem because they are like the Hydra -- you cut off one head and two more will pop up as the cyber-population grows.

Many of the laws we have seen so far also amount to violations of freedom of speech, and are open to abuse by governments seeking to silence dissidents.

Most people who spread false information do so unknowingly and without malice. Yes, there are people who create and spread fake news for personal financial gain, with the intention to defame, or to score political points.

More often than not, people who share or forward such information don't even know that what they are sharing might harm someone or some institution. But if the laws created to combat fake news are too vague, how do you distinguish between malicious intent and plain ignorance? And how can you stop people in power from abusing such laws?

These days, almost every time an authoritarian leader or dictator hears news that doesn't fit with his views, you'll hear him condemn it as "fake news". Some of these authoritarians are now armed with laws that can be used to jail people who disagree with them.

The Malaysian government recently did the right thing by scrapping a controversial anti-fake news law. It was introduced by former prime minister Najib Razak before the May 2018 election, mainly as a means of stopping the spread of news about his alleged corruption.

The law defined fake news as "any news, information, data and reports which is or are wholly or partly false, whether in the form of features, visuals or audio recordings or in any other form capable of suggesting words or ideas." Offences cover creating, offering, publishing or financing the fake news process and failure to remove fake content.

How vague is that? Who will decide what is correct or what is false? Only government officials? Is sharing "publishing", and could simply having it on your computer land you in jail?

Thailand, meanwhile, is moving in wrong direction entirely. The country will open its first fake news centre by Nov 1 to tackle unverified news circulating on social media. Along with the Computer Crimes Act, which has been (ab)used repeatedly to silence political opposition, the centre will provide the government with another tool to monitor and get rid of dissidents.

Most people are familiar with the cases of Jatupat (Pai Dao Din) Boonpattararaksa and Karn Pongpraphapan. Both were charged under the Computer Crimes Act. Jatupat shared a BBC Thai Facebook biography of His Majesty the King in December 2016. So did 4,000 other people but he was the only one charged. Karn was charged after comments he made about monarchies in other countries were linked to a #royalmotorcade hashtag.

What is interesting is that both are pro-democracy activists who have spoken out against the previous military junta, which has transformed itself into an elected government. How many more cases like these have to happen before the abuse of the Computer Crime Act becomes clear?

Buddhipongse Punnakanta, the Minister of Digital Economy and Society, has said the new centre will teach media literacy, and a new website will act as a digital verifier of fake news. Yes, those are good measures, but asking owners of coffee shops with WiFi to keep customers' browsing histories for 90 days is a borderline violation of human rights.

The minister says such search data, if requested, would be used to track down fake news that could cause rifts and disunity in society. You might want to think twice about what you're browsing the next time you settle back with a latte and your smartphone.

When comes to combatting fake news, the best approach is still education. Let people know that there are differences between an opinion on a blog and websites that masquerade as "news" outlets. Simply looking for who wrote the content and double-checking the content against other sources can already go a long way. Enacting laws to put people in jail for sharing content will not do anything but enable abuse of power.

The administration of Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha can definitely learn a thing or two from our Malaysian neighbours, before it considers sinking Thailand further into the hole of repression.

Erich Parpart

Senior Reporter - Asia Focus

Senior Reporter - Asia Focus

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