Three weeks have passed since the general election, and the Thai media is still flooded with fake news and disinformation of all kinds. Essentially, these are designed to harm a particular individual, a political group or the country. Overall, the country's domestic environment is very fluid. Aside from efforts to form a new coalition government, the most important issues are related to national security and diplomacy.
Conspiracy theories and hearsay have become the country's most formidable challenges because of people's addiction to rumours (khao lue). Due to the ubiquitous use of social media among the population, information creators and content propagators have become celebrities with huge followings. The snowball effect is enormous and is compounded by the increasing difficulty of checking facts or sources.
Highly competitive news establishments on all platforms have often failed to follow media ethics despite repeated warnings from professional media organisations. As of last week, besides the efforts to form the next coalition government, the top disinformation items were that the US is planning to set up a new military base in Thailand, that efforts were being made to seek the independence of three southern provinces, that the incoming administration will be anti-China, and that plans are afoot to push back migrant workers from neighbouring countries. The list goes on.
In November 2019, Thailand set up the Anti-Fake News Centre to suppress fake news and disinformation. The government was worried about fake news and disinformation degrading the establishment and destabilising it. However, after the coronavirus crisis from 2020 to early this year, most of the disinformation concerns were shifted to Covid-related topics such as malfeasance related to the procurement of vaccines and its impacts, herbal miracle cures, and other social issues.
However, once the fear of the disease was the past, hate speech, as well as political and security-related fake news and disinformation, returned to the fore and rose meteorically on all social media platforms. The government's anti-fake news centre is no longer sufficient to check falsehoods online and on time. Today, independent organisations, including CoFact and AFP Fact Check, are doing their best to fact-check sensitive news that is sometimes overlooked by state agencies.
For instance, CoFact.org has recently been able to demonstrate that the allegation against the Pen Tham (Fair) Party, one of the eight coalition parties under the MoU signed last month, that it plans to seek independence for three southern provinces was totally false, achieving this through examining the sources of information, field visits and interviews with party members, local communities and experts.
Thailand is not alone in fighting fake news and disinformation, especially those related to government information. Other Asean members are facing the same challenges, in particular the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia, because they could involve racial and religious elements. For the time being, each member has different laws, regulations and ways of dealing with the falsehoods that crop up. Some members have emphasised the penalties against social media providers if they fail to notify users of their rights, responsibilities, and risks when storing, exchanging and sharing information on social media.
Among the Asean members, Singapore has the most comprehensive measures to tackle fake news with punitive measures. Under the 2019 Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), an official can declare that information posted online is "false" and then ask for a correction or remove it altogether. Furthermore, Singapore authorities can use existing laws to penalise people who propagate fake news. They could face prosecution, civil defamation suits, and contempt of court charges.
Truth be told, the effectiveness of Singapore's firmness has been the case study for many Asean countries, which are currently inundated by unscrupulous information. Singapore's swift and decisive actions have raised awareness among the island's netizens and abroad that they have to be extremely careful before they send out or share content because they will be held responsible. Most of the Asean members have laws and regulations in place, but they still lack the capacity to enforce the laws like the island republic has done.
In the past few years, there has been an urgent need among the Asean members to come up with common guidelines to manage government information to fight against existential dangers.
Under the Indonesian chair, an Asean way of dealing with this spread of false information might come to fruition after nearly five years of continuous efforts. Kudos must go to the Philippines, which placed the issue on the Asean agenda when it served as the chair in 2017. Now a draft titled Guidelines on Management of Government Information in Combating Fake News and Disinformation in the Media has been completed, and it is currently being circulated and vetted by all Asean members. Before the 43rd Asean-related Summit in September, the chair hopes to present the leaders with the draft for their stamp or approval.
The draft guidelines come from various sources such as Unesco references, regulations and agreements among internal regulators related to fake news disinformation from Indonesia and Asean members. It also details the government and community's perspective on the myriad impacts of fake news and disinformation. In addition, it will touch on its effect on government policymaking, such as weakening government institutions, causing public fear and conflict, and in extreme cases, violence.
Inside the guidelines, which were prepared by the Indonesian Ministry of Communication and Informatics together with input from all Asean members, they also elaborate on approaches to combating fake news and disinformation in the media, the types of regulations for combating fake news, key priorities, ways to detect fake news and disinformation, and responses to combat fake news and disinformation. The guidelines also recognise the need for a multi-sectoral approach involving not only the information sector but also those in the fields of telecommunications, transnational crime, law, youths and education in order to protect the citizens of the Asean region.
One of the recommendations to increase the effectiveness of combating fake news is to establish a fact-checking network in the region and the rest of the world. These networks use various kinds of tools and techniques to assess the information and determine if they are supported by evidence. Experts from the field and region can collaborate to determine the accuracy of a claim. One way to help strengthen the network is to apply the code of principles as outlined in the International Fact-checking Network (IFCN). As such, it can help to promote the credibility and legitimacy of the Asean effort.
Another popular idea is to promote media and information literacy. Each member Asean country has its own programmes and designs for its netizens to develop the necessary skills and knowledge to navigate the complex and quickly changing IT landscape.
In the coming days, there should be a common Asean media and information literacy campaign. The lack of a strong sense of belonging among netizens within the Asean community has been a key subject of discussion among Asean leaders. Quite frequently, ignorant Asean netizens are unknowingly becoming part of massive fake news and disinformation campaigns, adversely impacting Asean identity and centrality.
Finally, Asean members must do much more to combat this common challenge. While guidelines to manage government information in combating fake news and disinformation in the media are a positive step forward, the future empowerment of all media-related stakeholders is necessary to ensure a productive discourse by striking a balance with basic freedom of expression, transparency and accuracy.