Hoax busters: Fighting fake news in Indonesia

Workers print ballot papers at a printing press in Jakarta on 7 February, 2019, ahead of Indonesia's upcoming general elections to be held on 17 April. (Adek Berry / AFP Photo)

A small army of "hoax busters" in Indonesia is trying to hold the line against a swarm of fake news that threatens to sway millions of voters as the world's third-biggest democracy heads to the polls.

While many countries fret about the explosion of online falsehoods, observers say Indonesia's enormous social media audience – and low levels of digital literacy – make its 17 April polls particularly vulnerable.

A whopping 130 million people – about half the population – spend an average of over three hours daily on social media, one of the highest rates globally.

Analysts say much of what they are reading about the 245,000 candidates, who are standing for everything from the presidency to local legislative seats, is untrue.

The online battle is particularly fierce over the reputations of President Joko Widodo, who is running for re-election, and his challenger Prabowo Subianto.

Both are hit daily with false reports and doctored headlines circulated by fans, detractors and for-hire fake news fabricators known as buzzers.

Misinformation emerged in the 2014 election, which Widodo won, said Ari Nurcahyo, a political analyst at the Para Syndicate think tank.

"Now it's much more difficult to contain so the effect is more destructive, not only for the candidates but also for society," he said. 

"If it's not dealt with properly then we'll have serious issues even after the election."

Hoaxes, hate speech

Fears are growing that fake news is cracking open social and religious fault lines in the Southeast Asian nation of 260 million, which has significant ethnic and religious minorities, including Hindus, Christians and Buddhists.

Indonesia's reputation for religious tolerance has already been tested in recent years by extremist violence and the increasingly prominent voice of Islamic hardliners.

"What scares me is when hoaxes are mixed with hate speech because they often use false information to spread animosity along on ethnic, racial and religious lines," said Ferdinandus Setu, spokesman for Indonesia's communication and information ministry.

The ministry created an 80-person, around-the-clock fact-checking team to debunk hoaxes and other fake news, with officials announcing the results at regular press briefings.

Joining the offensive are hundreds of volunteers from Mafindo, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), which is among two dozen organisations that belong to a unique digital verification coalition called CekFakta – linked to Indonesia's top news outlets.

Widodo, who still leads Subianto by a wide margin, has blamed false information for hurting his chances in vote-rich West Java, the Muslim majority country's most populous province.

Online, Widodo haters say he is selling off the country to China and other foreign interests.

Or they claim he is a communist, intent on banning the daily call to prayer and legalising gay marriage – unpopular moves that the practising Muslim has never advocated.

But Subianto also has online detractors who air falsehoods such as that the retired general wore smart glasses to give him an unfair edge during televised presidential debates.

"Both sides are playing with rumours, altering facts and data," said Syamsuddin Haris, a political analyst at the Indonesia Sciences Institute.

Despite the huge volume of fake news, pollsters say that among committed supporters of either presidential candidate, false stories make little difference either way in terms of their voting choice. 

The real target – and the places the hoaxes can make a difference – is the undecided voters which are estimated to number as much as 15 percent of the huge electorate and maybe enough to tip the balance.

'False narrative'

Facebook, which has a fact checking partnership with Agence France-Presse (AFP), has banned political advertisements from outside Indonesia ahead of the polls, and shut hundreds of accounts and pages linked to a group accused of spreading hate speech and false claims.

Police have also cracked down, rounding up freelance fakers and members of the Muslim Cyber Army (MCA), a cluster of loosely connected groups that attack the government and stoke religious extremism on social media.

Despite a string of arrests, online trolls are still trying to confuse with claims like boxes of cash were found inside a crashed helicopter carrying a political candidate, suggesting she was corrupt. 

Photos of the downed helicopter – which were real – were accompanied by false stories about the money.

"Many people can tell when a photo or video has been doctored, but the problem is when they're real but the accompanying narrative is false," said Mafindo co-founder Aribowo Sasmito. – AFP