Thailand is set to open its first center to combat fake news, a minister said Tuesday, the latest Asian country to push for greater cyber scrutiny in what activists fear is a smokescreen for targeting critics.
The Anti-Fake News Center 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, said minister Buddhipongse Punnakanta.
“Every country faces the issue of fake news … especially Thai people,” Buddhipongse said, after explaining the initiative to prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.
Prayut took power in a 2014 coup, muzzling dissent for several years with special laws, but became civilian premier after tainted polls in March.
Rights groups say the arch-royalist administration is still stifling dissent while keeping a close eye on public discussion of Thailand’s unassailable monarchy.
Almost 80% of online or social media posts are false or misleading, Buddhipongse added.
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 tip-offs.
The former junta banned gatherings of more than five people and arrested hundreds for violating new restrictions. While the ban was lifted, advocates say freedom of expression has barely improved.
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 center would be one-stop-shop for monitoring dissent. “We don’t focus only on politics and other people that oppose the government.”
But Sunai Phasuk, senior researcher with Human Rights Watch, said it 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.
Analysts say many authoritarian regimes have been emboldened by US President Donald Trump’s fiery rhetoric against the media.
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.