As Indonesia gears up to hold its general election next week, the campaign has been dominated not just by policy debates, but also the fight against “fake news.” The harmful effects of deliberate misinformation – or “hoaxes,” as we tend to call “fake news” in Indonesia – have been a feature of our political scene for years. The starkest example came during the Jakarta gubernatorial elections in 2017.
Jakarta’s Chinese Christian governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known as Ahok, was the subject of a massive online disinformation campaign, sparked by a doctored video that appeared to show him insulting the Koran. Amid a flood of online content that fueled political and social tensions – including anti-Chinese sentiments and hardline Islamic content aimed at influencing Muslim voters – Ahok lost his bid for re-election to his Muslim rival Anies Baswedan, and was eventually jailed on “blasphemy” charges.
No wonder that just months after the election, Indonesia plunged 20 places (from 48th to 68th position) on the global democracy index of The Economist magazine, making the world’s third-largest democracy the “worst-performing country in 2017.”
Ahok’s case vividly shows how the politicization of religion, coupled with the wide dissemination of “fake news,” can affect voting patterns and sway election results. As my country prepares for its presidential election next week, the campaign has tested Indonesia’s image as a regional leader in promoting tolerance and upholding democratic values.
Today, Indonesia boasts more than 140 million active Internet users and one of the largest active social-media audiences worldwide. Twitter and Facebook are the two most popular platforms and both are key to reaching millennials and first-time voters. With almost half of the voters in 2019 expected to be between the ages of 17 and 35, there has been a real fear that disinformation will manipulate and polarize voting behavior or even lead to voting abstinence.
Determined to avoid a repeat of the Jakarta gubernatorial vote, the Indonesian government has been taking a strong stance in stamping out online falsehoods. Since October last year, the Communication Ministry has held weekly briefings on “fake news” to educate the public on disinformation.
This has led to authorities blocking access to websites deemed as “fake news,” and the arrests of 14 members of the Muslim Cyber Army, a network accused of producing defamatory campaigns and hate speech to inflame religious and ethnic divisions. The government has also set up a team of engineers to monitor social-media traffic and other online platforms for violations of the Information and Electronic Transactions Law.
It is important to stress that hoaxes are not limited to the political sphere – authorities have also been kept busy battling false information around natural disasters and the Lion Air plane crash last October
A new website called Stophoax.id was also recently launched by the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology to bust hoaxes and provide an avenue for the public to report alleged sources of fake news. Despite these efforts, at least 700 election-related hoaxes were reported by the ministry in March alone, highlighting the scale of the problem.
It is important to stress that hoaxes are not limited to the political sphere – authorities have also been kept busy battling false information around natural disasters and the Lion Air plane crash last October. Many hoaxes are spread deliberately, but their unintentional circulation can pose a daily challenge as well. It’s a running battle between fact-checkers and hoax fabricators, also known as “buzzers,” who are increasingly using more sophisticated methods to spread fake news, including circulating video content.
Of course, there is no question that “fake news” has become a convenient rallying cry for governments around the world to denounce critics. In the US, President Donald Trump has assailed independent journalists as “fake news” mongers when they question his agenda. Closer to home, authoritarian governments in Cambodia and Malaysia have recently passed “anti-fake news” laws that seemed designed to repress critical voices, although fortunately the new authorities in Malaysia have already taken steps to repeal their law. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has openly admitted deploying “troll armies” to harass opponents and spread smears on social media. More recently in Singapore, the newly proposed Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, or “fake news” bill, has been widely criticized by rights groups for stifling debate.
Governments – including in Indonesia – must ensure that any efforts to counter “fake news” fall within international human-rights standards, and are purely motivated by ensuring that voters can go to the ballot well-informed. States also have the responsibility to facilitate a wider enabling environment for freedom of expression. This means that laws put in place must not unduly restrict a person’s freedom to hold opinions or be used to suppress legitimate criticisms. States should also support the promotion of media diversity, independence, and access to information, as means to halt disinformation, hate speech and propaganda.
Because of the fast-paced nature of the Internet and its users, tackling false news should not only involve efforts from the government, but also of journalists, media outlets and civil society. One notable initiative in Indonesia is CekFakta – a digital-verification coalition of 24 top media organizations, including Google News Initiative, the Indonesian Cyber Media Association (AMSI), the Indonesian Anti-Slander Society (Mafindo), and the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) – which independently aims to complement ongoing government programs by strengthening responsible journalism and ensuring that news outlets uphold high standards of accuracy.
Since December, Mafindo has noted a spike in political fake news targeting the campaigns of the presidential election’s two main contenders, Joko Widodo and Prabowo Subianto. For instance, Widodo has commonly been portrayed as being a communist or anti-Islam, while “fake news” spread about Prabowo claims he is plotting to establish a new caliphate. Even electoral institutions have been targeted in attempts to delegitimize them, worrying election monitors.
Despite efforts to combat fake news, more needs to be done to increase digital literacy and awareness of their implications. Indonesia’s state ideology Pancasila – which includes respect for humanity, the freedom to choose one’s religion or belief, and social justice – is now facing threats from identity politics that have driven racial and religious divides. Governments have a duty to ensure that the electorate is well informed, but should do so in a way that does not favor any one side, or arbitrarily muzzles criticism.
The enjoyment of our civil and political rights, including the right to vote and to be elected, is an indispensable component for a functioning democracy. As a candidate in the upcoming Indonesian election, it is my responsibility to do what I can to prevent any erosion of public confidence in our democratic processes, as well as those in the region.