Don't drag the press into fake news mess

Don't drag the press into fake news mess

Known for her constant criticism of the opposition, Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) MP for Ratchaburi, Pareena Kraikupt, has been unusually quiet when it comes to speaking of her controversial ownership of land plots which allegedly are located in a land-reform zone.

When she was confronted by reporters who demanded her clarification on the matter on Friday, she simply bowed her head and asked for their "sympathy". She went on to say that she won't be answering any of their questions because she has signed an "MoU" -- a Memorandum of Understanding -- with media companies, in which she agreed to not give out interviews on the issue.

This reference to MoUs stunned the audience, leaving many wondering whether Ms Pareena was giving out false information.

Over the weekend, she clarified that no formal MoU was signed before claiming that she was misunderstood. She said that the "MoU" she mentioned on Friday referred to a verbal mutual understanding she reached with a journalist, whom she thought would spread her message to other reporters.

Under the law, only the poor and/or farmers have the right to occupy and use plots in land-reform zones, with land areas capped at 50 rai per person for planting crops and 100 rai per person for raising livestock. Ms Pareena owns 1,700 rai, or 672 acres, which currently houses her poultry farms.

Ms Pareena posted on her Facebook page, saying she obtained the land legally. She claimed that she was slandered, before alleging that former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was behind the push to investigate her -- a piece of information which she has failed to substantiate.

I'm aware that I shouldn't be repeating fake news in this piece, but Ms Pareena's use of vague and unsubstantiated information reminded me of the declining ethics in Thai politics. These days, politicians are the ones feeding disinformation to the public, and most of them walk free without facing any consequences. Indeed, disinformation is nothing now. For decades, Thai politicians have given misleading speeches and falsely denied allegations of wrongdoings. In the age of digital information -- in which the public's media literacy has increased and a number of online resources can be used for fact-checking -- politicians really need to be more careful about spreading disinformation.

The fact of the matter is, they have not exercised more caution. In many cases, disinformation still comes from top government figures. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, for example, continues to mislead the public by blaming previous governments for the current regime's failings.

I believe that such behaviour has persisted because the government and the ruling coalition do not take the fight on fake news seriously. They tends to avoid taking serious actions against politicians who spread disinformation. They must show their commitment by prohibiting politicians from spreading unsubstantiated information, and forcing those who spread fake news to offer public apologies if their actions causes damage to others.

Ironically, tackling false information is now on the government's agenda. Earlier this month, the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society launched the Anti-Fake News Centre to monitor fake news on social media channels. So far, there have been over 480,000 pieces of suspected fake news reported, of which 60% relate to health issues, 22% to government policy and 14% the economy. While only around 5,100 pieces still need to be verified, the centre has not taken government members who spread false or misleading information into account. As it functions more like an arm to protect the government's image, critics said the public are not very likely to trust the centre. Furthermore, they said the centre serves to reinforce double standards, as it tends to let some people -- such as politicians and pundits -- get away with spreading fake news.

Ms Pareena seems to erroneously believe that politicians can negotiate with journalists on what questions should (or, should not) be asked. However, her beliefs aren't exactly false, as there are media outlets who are known to cooperate with the government. As traditional media, such as TV and newspapers, struggle to survive financially, many have shifted their revenue strategies from advertisements to sponsored content from government agencies and enterprises. Consequently, some outlets have been forced to tone down their criticism of politicians and certain issues, and publicise false information without proper scrutiny. The government and the PPRP need to take action against those who spread disinformation. They should encourage their members to talk responsibly, or the government's reputation and PPRP's popularity will be affected in the long run.

Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.

Paritta Wangkiat


Paritta Wangkiat is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.

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