How Thailand's civil society is fighting digitally against COVID-19
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” have gone viral.
Much of the false content sounds absurd, still they are rapidly spreading across Thailand’s social media platforms and messenging services. And not only Thailand. The World Health Organization (WHO) speaks of an "infodemic" with serious consequences: because the disease can only be contained with the help of the public, false news hamper the fight against the virus.
But there is a countermovement. In Thailand, media, social enterprises, and volunteers fight the information chaos. With the support of 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 these to the concerned 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 messenging 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, for instance, 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 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. Particularly in times of crisis, it is important to be vigilant.
Civil society in 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.
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 have been collected, an algorithm will evaluate where a new coronavirus hotspot might form.
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 due to the symptoms they entered in the program. The system informs then 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. 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.
The interest is enormous: According to the company, 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. 5Lab founder Ramida "Jennie" Juengpaisal in an interview with the local press says: "Too much panic only causes us more problems."
Frederic Spohr is the Head of FNF Thailand and FNF Myanmar.