EDITORIAL: Weaponising fake news

Army chief Apirat Kongsompong speaks to the media in April. In his recent interview with Reuters, he accused new political parties of using fake news to turn young people against the military. (Photo by Patipat Janthong)

Both the army and the new government seem to have been troubled by what they described as waves of “fake news”.

Last week, army chief Apirat Kongsompong told Reuters the army is fighting a hybrid war waged by enemies, whom he vaguely accused as being new political parties using fake news to turn young people against the military. Digital Economy and Society Minister Buddhipongse Punnakanta then quickly threw his support behind the army chief. On Monday, the minister said the government’s new anti-fake news centre will work with the army, along with other agencies to reduce the wave of fake news.

Their new mission, however, does not appear to be comforting. Their comprehension of the topic and their target groups for crackdown rather invite a sense of apprehension about whether this will turn into a state censorship and propaganda machine.

As a matter of fact, Gen Apirat’s accusation is more troublesome than what he claimed the “enemies” have done. He suspected the parties — without naming them — of being behind the small bombs that hit Bangkok early this month and accused them of brainwashing young people with fake news. He went as far as comparing them to communist insurgents in the 1970s and 80s.

But his claims are not backed by verifiable facts, nor were they factual. It rather reflects a string of fake news and a disinformation campaign played out on social media against members of a rising new political player — the Future Forward Party (FFP).

His statement is a reminder of how China used state and social media to label Hong Kong protesters as radicals provoked by foreign agents.

Some key FFP members have already criticised Gen Apirat’s accusation as state propaganda targeting their party, saying how it is similar to the accusations thrown around ahead of the state’s bloody crackdown on student protesters in October 1976.

As troublesome as Gen Apirat’s remark is the state’s record of tackling fake news. Under Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s previous administration, authorities slapped criminal charges against government critics and other social media users — charging them with violating the Computer Crimes Act (CCA) by putting “false information” into a computer system, or sharing false news on social media. While some of them did share the news without knowing that it was fake, others were critical of the government.

At the same time, the previous government did not take any action against those who produced and spread fake news against its opponents, particularly key FFP members.

Thailand does not have an anti-fake news law. But authorities have the CCA, which carries a harsh punishment.

This time, Mr Buddhipongse said the government will use it to target those producing fake political and economic news.

Whether the so-called anti-fake news centre can tackle the problem depends pretty much on how it operates. For one thing, it can be easily misused by authorities to stifle free speech or criticisms against the state. Therefore, it should not act as an agent who determines what fake news is. It should not ban online content and accuse people of violating the CCA. Instead, it should facilitate efforts among online platforms to remove fake news and encourage them to adopt self-regulatory standards to fight disinformation.

Industry self-regulation may not be a perfect solution. But it is far better than letting the state have sole control in determining what information is true or fake.



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