Thailand’s new “Anti Fake News Center” concluded its first month of operations this week, to catcalls from critics who found its work product shoddy and primarily focused on suppressing criticism of the government.
Human Rights Watch researcher Sunai Phasuk bluntly compared it to the “Ministry of Truth” in George Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984.
Phasuk described operations like the Anti Fake News Center as “a hallmark of authoritarian regimes” and an effort to intimidate the Thai people by reminding them the state can “look into everything and everyone online and monitor their comments.”
Phasuk, a persistent critic of both the Thai military junta – whose idea of “transitioning to civilian rule” involved installing the leader of the junta as the “civilian ruler” with elections in May – and the rise of “fake news” laws across Asia, was quoted by Coconuts Bangkok in a review that trounced the Thai Anti Fake News Center as a ramshackle operation with a crude website, loads of cut-and-paste articles about non-political health and consumer products issues, and a few bits of original reporting on political issues that tend to strongly favor the government. Amusingly, calls to the Center’s posted hotline numbers occasionally connect to anonymous bureaucrats who did not realize they were listed as contacts on the website.
According to the representatives who did know they were working for the Anti Fake News Center, the center gets over 9,000 tips about fake news each day, discards over 90 percent of them as unworthy of investigation, and then ostensibly coordinates with other agencies of the Thai government to verify the accuracy of online posts.
“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,” Coconuts Bangkok remarked, satirically quoting from Blade Runner to maintain the dystopian flavor of the article.
When the Anti Fake News Center was launched in November, it was presented as a high-tech “war room” with dozens of technicians hunting down dubious websites and monitoring social media. Everyone involved claimed it would not be used to suppress political dissent, although they acknowledged it would carefully review news about government policies that affected “peace and order, good morals, and national security.”
The Thai operation does seem to have debunked a few urban legends and online rumors during its month of operation, but much of its energy is devoted to signaling that “fake news” about the government will not be tolerated. No one has been prosecuted as a result of the center’s operations yet, although the minister in charge of the operation keeps making ominous statements that the situation could change.
“Fake News” laws are often criticized for subjective enforcement and vague standards of what constitutes actionable falsehood. Phasuk warned before the Thai operation was launched that it was “likely to be a tool for censorship” because the junta “has focused exclusively on clamping down and punishing critics and dissidents even for comments made in good faith,” while largely ignoring “misinformation and online hate campaigns targeting pro-democracy activists and human rights defenders.”
Voice of America News in October quoted analysts who noted Southeast Asia has some legitimate reasons to worry about false news reports and online propaganda touching off deadly violence between ethnic and religious groups, but also noted its governments are keenly interested in controlling political dissent and keeping their societies sealed away from “foreign influence.”