A woman wearing mask while exercising at Lumpini park, taken on April 2020.

Thai-style misinformation revealed

Cofact, a local fact-checking organization, published its first annual report in an effort to promote awareness of how misinformation circulates in Thailand.  Recent examples include claims that cancer and the Covid-19 virus can be cured by drinking lemonade and soda water.

From left to right: Supinya Klangnarong and Chitpong Kittinaradorn

Launched on 27 May, the report "De-coding Disinformation: Cofact Original Report and Recommendations" was presented by Supinya Klangnarong, a Cofact founder, and Chitpong Kittinaradorn, a researcher at the Changefusion Institute, a Cofact network partner.

According to Supinya, Cofact is a collaborative effort modeled after Cofacts, an online community of fact checkers in Taiwan who help to debunk false information.

Covid-19 killed by sunbathing?

Accessed via Facebook, Line, and several other web platforms, the Cofact portal reportedly had 131,333 visits last year. Popular content included an infographic summarizing erroneous reports on the Covid-19 virus. Also viewed were reports of a fake audio clip, purportedly from the Dean of Siriraj Hospital, requesting that people to go into self-lockdown; false news that vegetarians had lower Covid-19 infection rates; a misleading report that postal deliveries were a dangerous source of viral infection; and a claim that sunbathing was a Covid-19 cure.

In addition to fake news of Covid-19 remedies, other popular pieces of misinformation included reports that applications for the government’s 'Pao Tang’ welfare programme can also be used to secure loans and news of a sudden incoming cold front.

Explaining how Cofact debunks false news, Chitpong used the example of an erroneous report that a local herb, fa thalai jon, offered protection from Covid-19, a widely-disseminated piece of misinformation.  A content analysis of social media using listening software and keywords revealed that reports began circulating in April 2020, reaching a peak on the 20th with 933 posts and an overall engagement of around 100,000 views.  Posts came from both misinformation spreaders and correctors, the latter outnumbering the former by more than two to one. Spreaders continued posting in an effort to promote their herbal cures, however.

The investigation also identified the original source of the misinformation. A March 2020 video of a Ministry of Public Health press briefing featured a speaker who called for further study of fa thalai jon as a possible Covid-19 treatment.  Published on YouTube, the video headline implied that the herb was a virus cure.  The video had over 100,000 viewers.

The team traced false claims that 'Pao Tang' applications can be used to borrow money to loan websites and found that erroneous reports of sudden cold snaps have been circulating on chat applications since 2019, despite continuous efforts by authorities and news agencies to counter such reports

Uncharted territories

Supinya explained that it was difficult trace false news disseminated over chat applications like Line.  The fake audio file of Siriraj Hospital’s Dean apparently circulated on a chat platform before being posted to social media.  Supinya said that Cofact has repeatedly approached Line in an effort to address such problems but had yet to receive a response.

Supinya also expressed concern about people who post information without checking its accuracy.  Family members and colleagues who receive erroneous content often make no effort to correct it out of concern that the sender will lose face.  And this, in turn, often results in the sender reposting false information elsewhere.

To stop the spread of misinformation, Supinya proposed that the government establish a one-stop service centre to provide official information.   She also called upon the media to help with fact-checking, and suggested that social media platforms allow misinformation to be flagged for removal.  In addition, she suggested fact-checking and digital literacy be included in educational curricula from primary school onward.

Commenting upon the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society’s current efforts to identify false news, Supinya noted that most countries rely on the media and civil groups to do the job and suggested that the Ministry work instead to create governmental transparency by making official data accessible to the public.

Chitpong expressed hope that discussions with Line will eventually lead to volunteer monitoring.  Stressing the value of truthful reporting may also help people to overcome their reticence to correct the mistaken posts of friends and family..

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