Thailand’s social media platforms are full of disinformation regarding COVID-19. False news like “Vegetarians and vegans cannot become infected” or “China has produced rapid test kits that churn out results in 15 minutes, with an accuracy of 99 percent” has gone viral.
Thailand's social media platforms are full of misinformation regarding COVID-19. False News like "Vegetarians and vegans cannot become infected” or "China has produced rapid test kits that churn out results in 15 minutes, with an accuracy of 99 percent” has gone viral.
Much of the false content sounds absurd, still it is rapidly spreading across Thailand’s social media platforms and messaging services. The World Health Organization (WHO) speaks of an "infodemic" with serious consequences, and because the disease can only be contained with the help of the public, false news hampers the fight against the virus.
But there is a countermovement. In Thailand, media, social enterprises, and volunteers are fighting the information chaos, also with the support of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF). Digital initiatives not only raise awareness about the proliferation of false information, they also help address the health crisis. They collect information about individual health data, and forward it to the relevant authorities. Apparently, not only typical pioneers such as South Korea employ innovative crisis management; emerging countries like Thailand are also worth a look.
For example, with the so-called "Cofact" chatbot, which was launched two weeks ago by Cofact Thailand, users can verify the messages they receive via messaging services. They simply forward the message to the chatbot, which then accesses a database and tells users whether the message is correct or not.
Students of Maejo University Chiang Mai encode the information in the database. But professional journalists also check the facts, such as those from the medical magazine HFocus. In the future, Cofact will also check social and political news. In view of the crisis, however, the teams are currently concentrating on false reports about the pandemic. The fact-checkers have already identified around 120 false reports about COVID-19. Every day, up to ten more are added.
FNF supports the establishment of the platform. Last year, the parties involved came together in a conference on disinformation organized by the Foundation. "We have become a central contact point when it comes to bringing together experts and interested parties on the topic of disinformation", says FNF Program Manager Pimrapaat Dusadeeisariyakul. The chatbot is based on a program originally developed in Taiwan and translated by the Thai FNF partner Change Fusion, a social enterprise.
The civil society project Cofact is a counterbalance to a controversial "anti-fake news center" of the Thai government. Critics fear that the center could be misused to discredit government criticism as “fake news”. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has declared a state of emergency in Thailand. Among other things, this gives him the power to control the media even more tightly.
Civil society on the frontline
Because of the pandemic, everyday life in Thailand is already severely restricted. The virus is spreading slowly but steadily. Authorities have registered more than 2,000 cases so far, but experts expect a high number of unreported cases due to limited testing capabilities. In acountry with almost 70 million inhabitants, less than 1,000 people are tested every day. In Germany the figure is several tens of thousands per day.
Creative solutions from civil society are urgently needed. The so-called “Sabaidee project,” for example, which was co-initiated by FNF's long-standing cooperation partners and social businesses Change Fusion and Open Dream, could help. Smartphone users can store their state of health and possible symptoms on their device. The app then forwards the data anonymously to the Thai disease control authority. When sufficient data has been collected, an algorithm will evaluate where a new coronavirus hotspot might be located.
More than 30,000 users are already participating in the project. They help the public and also get incentivized for their involvement. They receive alerts and notifications if they should undergo a test based on the symptoms they entered in the program. The system then informs them where they could be tested. They also receive a warning if a massive outbreak has occurred in their area or nearby.
Thais also have the possibility to easily follow the development of the number of COVID-19 cases in their immediate vicinity – made possible by a private initiative. The software company 5Lab has created a digital map into which new cases are entered. The company obtains the data for its "COVID Tracker" from the Ministry of Health. Local initiatives, including the FNF partner Digital4Peace, offer similar maps at local level.
The interest is enormous: According to the company 5Lab, 50,000 people accessed the "COVID Tracker" per minute at its peak. This figure shows how great the uncertainty within the population is. Digital solutions create transparency hopes 5Lab founder Ramida "Jennie" Juengpaisal. In an interview with the local press she says: "Too much panic only causes us more problems."