Fake news dominates Indonesia’s social media channels, prompting the government to step up measures to stop the misinformation that has already had dire effects on the country’s political landscape.
By Hisyam Nasser, edited by Holly Reeves
Indonesia’s President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has had enough of fake news. He wants to tackle the issue head-on and has called on his cabinet to be ready to crackdown on the spread of misinformation. “We need determined and tough law enforcement,” the young leader says.
This declaration came on the heels of heightened tensions with China and violent street protests against Jakarta’s governor Ahok, all thanks to widely-shared online articles with untrue or exaggerated claims. In fact, the problem is so severe that the Communications Ministry has blocked 11 Islamic websites deemed to have spread ethnic, religious and racial tensions. They also arranged a meeting with representatives from Facebook to discuss inaccurate reporting on the highly-popular social media platform.
It is an important issue for Jokowi to address, Indonesia has one of the largest populations of active social media users, with an estimated 129 million people maintaining accounts. In such a vast and proactive community, information, or misinformation, spreads exceedingly fast.
Anti-Chinese sentiment is prevalent
Although most of the posts are satirical in nature, recent events reveal the circulation of content of a more malicious intent. To give one insightful example, Twitter user BoengParno caused widespread paranoia amongst Indonesians after sending a single tweet about the arrest of four Chinese nationals for planting imported chilli seeds supposedly contaminated with bacteria.
The tweet read, “Haven’t people realised that Chinese attacks on this country are real in many ways. From drugs, illegal workers, now chilli bacteria.” The allegation spread like wildfire and saw many citizens throw away their seeds and crops. The Chinese Embassy eventually had to issue a statement saying that the paranoia was, “very worrying.”
However, the most visible impact of fake news on Indonesian society is in the ongoing trial of Jakarta’s governor over accusations of blasphemy fuelled by allegedly-doctored YouTube content. As an ethnic Chinese Christian, some of the posts in question have sought to heighten community tensions about him, highlighting the growing hard-line Islamist movement in the country and the power of social media to undermine social stability.
Fake news is creating a more divisive politics
The problem here is the divided Indonesian community. Extremist groups make use of easily spread false news to prey on the anger of some Indonesians against the Chinese minority. These actions further entrench splits between Muslims and minority groups, a situation that religious groups themselves are trying to combat. Meanwhile, Jokowi also recognises this danger and is attempting to curb these hoaxes with his new National Cyber Agency (NCA).
His idea is an umbrella agency for existing government services that will merge with the National Encryption Agency to secure cyber activities. As such it will form a coordinating body for the cyber divisions of the Indonesian military, National Police and State Intelligence Agency, and focus on handling material shared via social media and public websites. The details are still unclear about how exactly it will work to establish regulations and set policy for online communications, but the police force will play a role. This seems like a wide pool of powers, but the government says it will not look into any private information. Campaigners, however, are worried about an erosion of civil liberties.
The perceived threat towards freedom of speech is not unfounded. The Communications and Information Ministry has already blocked more than 800,000 websites, including Netflix, Vimeo, Reddit and Imgur. And we may see more of this in the future, alongside collaboration with fact-checking sites, apps and Facebook pages to surgically remove dubious posts and material. In Germany, for example, Facebook has a fact-check button that users can click on to flag articles that they think are misleading. An independent organisation then verifies these items and tags dubious materials as “disputed.”
False news is a global problem, but Indonesia needs a local solution
Fake and biased reporting is not unique to Indonesia. This issue exists in almost every nation. And the basis is as much about culture as it is technology. People today share content that resonates with them without checking. In fact, based on findings in a recent BuzzFeed article, fake election stories attracted more attention than genuine ones from reputable sources. But does this mean that governments should police this material when users will not?
It is clearly in the public interest to take national action, but the options available to leaders like Jokowi are largely untested. This means he now has to quickly find a way to define the conversation, without letting it define him, as protests and consequences escalate. The development of a national agency is an innovative step, but getting the balance of civil liberties wrong could be just as dangerous for his levels of popular support as the fake news itself. Whatever he does will be too late to make an impact on the divisive gubernatorial elections, and the fate of his friend Ahok. The Governor’s public trial by Facebook continues. It will likely not be the last.