Opinion: In an age of disinformation, we must become more savvy and responsible

As Winston Churchill once said, history is written by the victors.

This goes to show that what people believe is the truth is more important than the truth itself. Society is built on the narrative of our past and present. As this narrative is increasingly built in the online world, media platforms, for better or for worse, play an essential role in our society. 

Trump has shown throughout his presidency that these interactions in the cyberworld have tangible consequences in society at large. For instance, it allowed Russian influence in the 2016 elections through online disinformation campaigns, which the US recognized as a national security issue. However, there is no clearer example than the storming of the US Capitol on 6 January, 2021, when pro-Trump rioters disrupted the Electoral College vote count. They attempted to obstruct President-elect Joe Biden’s formal victory under the false belief that the election was “stolen” from them. 

This marked a moment of history where the foundations of American democracy were cracked and the rule of law subverted. While President Trump may have incited the protesters to march upon the Capitol, the media’s role is undeniable in this insurrection. It was the media – both regulated and unregulated – that perpetrated the claim of widespread election fraud. Social media, in particular, not only allowed but also encouraged a culture of rampant disinformation. Citizen journalism without traditional media’s fact-checking reverberates loudly and frequently in our social-media echo chambers, exacerbated by profitable algorithms proliferating extreme views that affirm our personal biases. 

In particular, Trump’s prolific Twitter use – up until his permanent ban last week – allowed him to express his thoughts on a wide range of issues, from grievances to national policy. Through the platform, he moulded his nationalist America First agenda that resonated with the far right. From the moment he ran for president, he began weaving a tapestry of myth and mendacity. Even Twitter’s initial flagging of Trump’s tweets for misinformation could not stop the carnage at the Capitol. It should have come as no surprise, however, as right-wing protesters had been discussing their plans on social media and genuinely believed in Trump’s false claims.

This is a stunning case in point of how disinformation causes social division, effectively preventing a peaceful transition of power in one of the world’s oldest democracies. It is not merely a difference of opinion that is causing polarization: It is a fundamentally different understanding of the “truth.”

This rings close to home in Thailand, where we have domestic disinformation aplenty. In election season, each media mouthpiece spews hate campaigns. Social division between ‘yellow’ and ‘red’ shirts are caused by their very different narratives on society, not only due to their upbringing but also the media they consume. This has caused political unrest in Thailand for the past decade. 

Take, for example, the Royal Motorcade incident last year, in which pro-democracy protesters were seen heckling the Queen, a turning point in the pro-democracy protests that led to an emergency decree and subsequent government crackdowns. Despite video footage, the fundamental understanding of the incident was different between pro-democracy protesters and royalists due to the way the narrative was spun. Pro-democracy protesters believed it was peaceful. The Government, however, disagreed: Protesters were charged with Article 110 of the Criminal Code, which prohibits acts of violence against the Queen or her liberty. On one hand, the monarchy is becoming increasingly controversial for pro-democracy protesters; on the other, it is a sensitive issue and a beloved institution for yellow shirts and pro-government protesters in Thailand. It is thus very easy for such emotions to be taken to the extreme on social media, creating political turmoil that embroiled Thailand for the past year. 

Further division is seen through the royalist conviction, pushed by conservative media outlets, that the student protests in Thailand are funded or backed by the US government. While the US Embassy in Bangkok had issued a statement to refute this claim, it remains a widely-held belief that attempted to invalidate the pro-democracy protests and their demands. It did not help that the government has politicized “fake news” in the struggle to balance free speech while countering disinformation. While the 2006 Computer Crime Act was promulgated to block internet content deemed to be false or that undermines ‘national security’, ‘public morals’, or ‘public order’, it is more controversially used to silence critics and selectively punish political opponents rather than to indiscriminately counter disinformation online.

Furthermore, pro-democracy protesters are particularly concerned with draconian sentences under Section 112 and 116 of the Criminal Code (lese majeste and sedition charges respectively) that have been directed against government opponents online, egged on by (sometimes false, or exaggerated) reports from online pro-government vigilante groups. Pro-democracy supporters also cheered when Twitter blocked 926 disinformation-spreading accounts linked to the Royal Thai Army that amplified pro-government content and ‘engag[e]d in behaviour targeting prominent political opposition figures’.

Politics aside, accurate information is now more important than ever in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Inaccurate information can cause an outbreak and cause real damage to the economy either due to shutdowns or public panic. The pandemic has given rise to a conspiracy theory ‘infodemic’ – COVID cases caused by 5G networks, the origins of the virus in a Wuhan lab center, and Trump’s assertion that hydroxychloroquine is an effective COVID-19 cure. Such disinformation must not be allowed to take hold in Thailand. The government has established an anti-fake news center for fact-checking, but it is up to the media and individuals not to allow fear of the virus to raise our worst instincts: irrationally turning away the sick by protesting the building of field hospitals, allowing xenophobia towards migrants in the belief that they all are infected, and inciting panic. 

As experienced both in the US and at home, whoever controls the narrative, controls society – the victors who will write the history books in today’s digital age are those who know how to manipulate the facts best in the war of disinformation. Therefore, the information we choose to believe in has the power to build or erode faith in our institutions. With so much accessible at our fingertips, it becomes every citizen’s civic duty to fact-check and venture out of their echo chambers.

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