In its first month, Thailand’s Anti Fake News Center has published 14 items on its website while claiming to have assessed the veracity of more than 500,000 items.
Those posts to the center’s poorly designed and organized website, along with another 57 uploaded prior to its launch, address a mix of issues including bogus health products and financial scams, with an emphasis on refuting politically oriented information that paints the government and top officials in a bad light.
A review of those 71 posts found that beyond 14 related to health information, most pertained to national security (12) and government (10), followed by finance (10), disasters (9), narcotics (5) and 11 items without a category.
The items of potential consumer value, such as those about financial or health scams, rely heavily on second-hand accounts already published elsewhere which the center then certifies as true. These items are mostly copy-paste efforts from other sources, photos and all (better not tell the Anti-Copyright Violation Center). They are taken from mainstream and marginal news sites, Facebook pages and other online sources for an effect akin to something like Snopes.com or other legitimate fact-checking enterprises.
More of its politically oriented items, such as disputing rumors the prime minister would resign or something his unpopular deputy said, are original efforts where the center has made the call rather than rehashing existing fact-checks. As with those two examples, they include attempts to walk back genuine statements made.
But despite frequent threats from the IT minister who heads the center, no new prosecutions have been initiated in the first month.
Human rights advocate Sunai Phasuk, freshly returned from a Singapore National University conference on “fake news,” said Thursday that Thailand’s new center negates any remaining expectations the government, post-election, would relax its grip on society.
“The center is acting like the Ministry of Truth, exclusively dominating the determination of what’s true or false,” said Sunai, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in Thailand. “This is clearly a hallmark of authoritarian regimes. It’s not democratic rule when the state exercises … control over what’s true or false.”
While the center’s bite hasn’t matched its bark in the first month of operation, Sunai said is beside the point – it adds yet another pressure front in the climate of fear, “telling Thai people the government has the authority to look into everything and everyone online and monitor their comments.”
“What we’ve got instead are these threats unleashed time to time from the minister that, now that we have a formalized center, we will start to monitor. He spelled out there will be investigations,” Sunai added.
Matters of Fact
The center launched last month with the stated goal of monitoring and analyzing the legitimacy of online information. It says that 120,391 tips were received in its first 13 days, averaging to nearly 9,300 each day.
Getting an explanation of where things go from there got off to a rough start. The Anti Fake News Center lists an information hotline on every page. Someone answering that phone was unable to answer any questions about the Anti Fake News Center and expressed surprise their number was listed as the hotline.
Coconuts Bangkok did get ahold of a spokesman who broke down the process he said is undertaken on each of the nearly 600,000 suspicious tips that are submitted by either the public or other government entities.
The process starts with determining whether the item is worth vetting at all.
“We only vet stories that will have a wide impact on society or the country as a whole,” the spokesman said, declining to identify himself beyond his nickname, Big.
Of the more than 120,000 tips it said came in the first two weeks, only 7,962, under 7%, were deemed to have a direct public impact.
Once a story is accepted, the center does a preliminary evaluation of whether it’s potentially false, then determines which department to forward it to for review.
For example, health-related reports go to the Public Health Ministry while things about natural disaster gets vetted by the Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Department.
Once the center receives the response, staff there decide whether to publish it on the website.
“We’ve only published about 70-something stories so far. We have a lot of stories still being vetted. Some stories that are more complicated, like when it comes to legal issues, which take a long time to be fact-checked,” spokesman said Wednesday afternoon.
The website is rudimentary and built on WordPress. It uses a “theme” that only displays the nine most-recent entries in each category, meaning all the posts meant to inform the public are quickly lost in time, like tears in rain.
But being built on the most common web platform means it doesn’t take much poking to gain access to the full history of posts, which prior to November’s official launch were accessed from another web address and called “Thailand Fact-Checking Center.” The content, then and now, is hosted by Barn364, a Thonburi-based web services provider.
There are nine categories on the site, which cover information about everything from the economy and rumors about bureaucrats to widely shared health tips and natural disasters.
A Nov. 26 article posted under the “Finance, Banking and Stocks” category dispelled an online whisper campaign that ATM machines without flashing lights were compromised by Ukrainian hackers.
The new center’s item said it debunked the item with the help of Krung Thai Bank.
Under the “Political policies and news” category, the center posted a Nov. 3 item refuting rumors that Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha would quit his position in the wake of a credibility crisis regarding his incomplete oath of office.
As stated, the center also promotes stories it deems true, such as a warning that pregnant women should avoid hot baths in the health category.
Overall the effort so far appears sloppy, and not all categories seem to have been created with the same amount of effort. The “Public order and domestic security” entries are repeated twice more in the “Political policies and news” as well as “Finance” sections.
They also encourage members of the public to report computer crimes via 02-288-8000 or online via the site.