Thailand is set to open its first centre to combat fake news, Thai officials said on Tuesday, making it the latest Asian country to push for greater cyber-scrutiny in what activists fear is a smokescreen for targeting critics.
The Anti-Fake News Centre will start work on Friday using Artificial Intelligence and trained monitors to flag posts on everything from healthcare to government policies, digital economy and society minister Buddhipongse Punnakanta said.
“Every country faces the issue of fake news . . . especially Thai people,” Buddhipongse said, after explaining the initiative to Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha.
Close eye on discussion
Prayut took power in a 2014 coup, muzzling dissent for several years with special laws, but became the civilian prime minister after polls in March.
Rights groups say the administration is still stifling dissent while keeping a close eye on public discussion of Thailand’s monarchy.
Almost 80 per cent of online or social media posts are false or misleading, Buddhipongse claimed.
The new centre has a Facebook page, Line messaging group and website, where examples of its findings will be published and where users can submit tips.
The head of Thailand’s army has railed against fake news and online propaganda, calling it a form of hybrid warfare.
Buddhipongse rebuffed allegations by civil society that the new centre would be a one-stop-shop for monitoring dissent.
“We don’t focus only on politics and other people that oppose the government.”
Tool for censorship
Human Rights Watch senior researcher Sunai Phasuk warned the initiative was just another tool for censorship. “A chokehold on free expression in Thailand is tightening even further,” he said.
Free speech campaigners have grown alarmed over the spread of government-led efforts to combat fake news.
A law against fake news came into force in Singapore this month, providing for hefty fines and even jail terms in extreme cases.
In Vietnam, there has been an uptick in arrests for online posts since a controversial cybersecurity bill was passed in January, according to Amnesty International.
In a rare bright spot for advocates this month Malaysian lawmakers voted to repeal fake news legislation.