Opinion: Prayuth’s War on ‘Fake News’ is Doomed to Fail

PM Prayuth Chan-ocha visits an exhibition about the government's Anti-Fake News Center on Oct. 29, 2019. Image: ข่าวจริงประเทศไทย / Facebook.

Five years of censorship and intimidating people from making critical political expression under the junta are now succeeded by a “truth center.”

The truth center, formally called Anti-Fake News Center, is real enough. With an annual fund of 60 million baht and working under the Digital Economy and Society Ministry, it pledges to dispel fake news on social media within hours after they were posted, with help from artificial and human intelligence.

If we look at it positively, the center, which was officially launched on Nov. 1, will tell us netizens what is real and what is false. This might prove useful when it comes to snake oil, fraudulent facial cream sold online, or the latest ponzi scheme.

In fact, most of their recent works focus on busting glaringly obvious bogus claims related to health – that warm pineapple juice can cure cancer, that mouthwash can eliminate pimples, or that boiled potatoes make your face look younger. One particularly serious fake news story, claiming that the government is forcing students to stop praying to Buddha, was also listed as fake.

But many fear that they will also try to tell us what is true, and what is false on other matters, too.

My suggestion is they should try to stay away from trying to dictate truth and falsehood true or false when it comes to politics and society.

If they do not, they will soon discover that its efforts are futile, its existence is redundant. Online citizens, particularly those from the younger generation, have moved on from relying on the state to tell them what to believe about politics.

Top: Footage of what the center looks like.

Five years of televised monologue by then junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha on prime time TV every Friday attracting abysmal viewership should have offered a lesson. Government officials said the situation improved somewhat after celebrity figures made guest appearances on the program, but that didn’t say much about the regime’s popularity.

Young people believe they are old enough to decide by themselves what is real or false. And it’s not just about news, but about what they are being told about the state of Thai society, including even taboo topics like the monarchy.

How else could we explain the phenomena of hashtag trending on Twitter that offered starkly more critical appraisal of the news than the mainstream media, such as the one million tweets discussing the recent downfall of Noble Royal Consort Sineenat Wongvajirapakdi?

It speaks volumes about how social media users feel that the traditional mass media (and the state-controlled media) were not giving enough critical information and analysis regarding the incident compared to Western news outlets.

Naturally, it has fallen to social media users to bypass Thai media’s self-censorship, and broaden the discussion and analysis by themselves.

One Western media personality wrote on Facebook on Tuesday upon learning about the government anti-fake news facility: “The center is set up like a war room, with monitors in the middle of the room showing charts tracking the latest ‘fake news’ and trending Twitter hashtags.”

I say good luck to the center, but such method in controlling political narrative and people’s thoughts is irrelevant in today’s world. These actions, including the requirement that free wifi users at café register their identity, will be pointless in the long run, only to serve as proof that the state is becoming increasingly paranoid and insecure.

The state is no longer in control of the plot. Even the mainstream mass media’s influence is dwindling in the face of the rise of social media and online influencers. Netizens increasingly consume news in a more tailored, on-demand, interactive and deliberative fashion.

The top-down approach of “we tell you what to believe is fake or real” is without efficacy and so very last-century.

The Anti-Fake News Center will really have to try much harder to attract the attention of young social media users, a population with little or no loyalty to any news agencies, and a very short attention span.