Thailand to set up center to combat 'fake news'

BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand's government on Wednesday announced a plan to set up a center to combat unverified news on social media platforms, rejecting concerns that it might be used to suppress free speech.

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The planned center's goal would be to fight all kinds of fake news, with a focus on misinformation about disasters and financial matters, Minister of Digital Economy and Society Buddhipongse Punnakanta said.

"Fake news is embedded within every aspect of our society, so it's very hard to specifically pinpoint anything right now besides the obvious problems, disasters and financial news, but as we progress — slowly but effectively — we'll try to cover every aspect possible," Buddhipongse said at a news conference.

He said the center would also teach media literacy and launch a website that would act as a digital verifier of news that people suspected of being fake.

"People can submit any news they're suspicious of being unauthenticated, or that could incite fear and confusion to the public, to the website and our officials would verify its authenticity within two hours," he said.

The center and the website are expected to be launched by October.

The plan has already drawn criticism. A spokeswoman for the opposition Future Forward Party said last month that it shared concerns about fake news, which it said has been used to attack the government's opponents, but was skeptical about setting up such a center.

"If the anti-fake news center is officially founded, we are afraid that it won't truly combat fake news or stop distorting information, but rather aid the destruction of the government's opponents. Because this is a global issue that every country is facing, we think that the most effective method would be encouraging people to have more media literacy, not suppressing content."

Buddhipongse said the center would not interfere with freedom of speech.

"We're not trying to act as a vigilante, and will not be used as a tool by some group of people to justify their action, or someone else's actions," he said.

The issue of fake news has become a major concern in several Southeast Asian nations. Critics have said misinformation circulated on social media, often with malicious intent, helped stir up communal violence in Myanmar, especially toward the Muslim minority. It also plagued recent elections in Indonesia and the Philippines.

At the same time there are concerns that government efforts against fake news may curb free speech and be used as a weapon against political opponents.

Thailand already has a Computer Crime Act that polices online media. It has often been used in cases involving politics and critics of the government.

Buddhipongse said that in order for the center to counter the fake news problem, it needs cooperation from widely used social media platforms in Thailand such as Facebook or the Line messaging app. He said his ministry was already in touch with these media platforms.