Hoax Production on the Rise as Indonesian Election Nears

March 14, 2019

As Indonesia is gearing up for presidential elections, hoax proliferates. Activists and journalists finally join forces to nip it in the bud.

By Nurma Fitrianingrum

On a late evening Sunday in mid-February, the second Indonesian presidential election debate between the incumbent Joko Widodo, also known as Jokowi, and Prabowo Subianto, a former army man, just started at Hotel Sultan in Jakarta, the country’s buzzing capital. Some 2.8 km away, dozens of journalists, civil society activists and experts gathered in front of two big screens in a room at the Google Indonesia office, each with a laptop in front of them, eyes and ears fully concentrated on the debate. They kept typing and occasionally spoke to each other.

Fact-checking what the candidates said, they all had the same goal: give people true information. In a country where misinformation is flooding the internet, that is more needed than ever.

A War Zone

Indonesian politics on social media has become a war zone as candidates in the country’s upcoming April elections strive to influence the public and secure more and more votes. One common strategy embraced by many of them is to damage the opponent’s image by spreading false news or misleading information about their foes.

The effect of fake news on elections has been heatedly debated in the last couple of years, particularly after the victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 American presidential election. Some pundits argued that he got elected thanks to fake news.

That debate is now reaching Indonesia, the world’s largest island country with more than 17,000 isles and over 261 million people who speak upwards of 700 languages.

In Indonesia, the term “hoax” is more popular in daily conversations than “fake news” to refer to any kind of misinformation, be that fabricated information or propaganda. People referred to “hoax” excessively during the 2017 gubernatorial election. The Indonesian hoax phenomenon got international attention as fake news helped shift the debate away from relevant societal issues emerged after the imprisonment for blasphemy of one of the candidates, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, widely known as Ahok.

Hoax Fighters

The battle against hoaxes has intensified in the past year in Indonesia mostly because of the forthcoming presidential election. As a growing number of Indonesians go online, much of this year’s electoral contest is likely to take place on the internet. Some 143.3 million Indonesians used the internet in 2017, according to the latest data available from the Indonesia Internet Service Providers Association (APJII), a local trade group. Some 130 million use Facebook, 45 million Instagram.

News media as well as NGOs play a crucial role in fighting hoaxes. The government is deeply involved, too. Some action has already been taken. In August 2017, the Indonesian Police uncovered Saracen, a hate speech content creation syndicate, arresting its head. Eight months later arrests were made in connection with the hoax production network Muslim Cyber Army, a fake news operation designed to attack the country’s president, Jokowi. The two networks claimed to have different purposes than misleading the public opinion, but it is widely believed that both have been operated and paid by various interest groups.

Along with such clampdown methods, fact-checking initiatives are an effective, less invasive tool to combat misinformation. Mafindo or the Indonesian Anti-Defamation/Slander Community (Masyarakat Anti Fitnah Indonesia) has been hunting for hoaxes since 2016. Its Twitter account has in excess of 14,100 followers.

In preparation for the April elections, Mafindo has been stepping up its fact-checking efforts, correcting misleading information and hoaxes about the presidential candidates and generally about the election. “Political hoax undermines voters’ reason, delegitimizes the Election Commission and leads to community segregation,” Septiaji Eko Nugroho, the founder and chairman of Mafindo said.

But to have more impact, fact-checkers need to collaborate more. The collective fact-checking exercise in the Google office during the second presidential debate on 17 February 2019, involving 24 news media, three NGOs and several experts was the first such collaborative event ever held in Indonesia. But fact-checking collaboration is growing. Mafindo has recently agreed with Cek Fakta, a coalition of 22 news media outlets specialized in fighting hoaxes, to join forces in monitoring lies during this year’s election campaign.

Online and Offline Together

Collaborative work not only leads to greater impact, but it makes journalists’ work easier. Following the Google stunt, journalists posted the findings of their fact-checking work on the website or Twitter account of their media outlet, either as plain text or bright, eye-catching infographics. For example, Tempo, a weekly, presented on its Twitter account the candidates’ statements side by side with the actual facts in an infographic featuring the candidates' photos.

The public starts to appreciate such work. A social media user, Rizal, 27, says that the information from fact-checkers influences his views and assessment of the president and vice president candidates. “So I will not be disappointed for the next five years,” Rizal said.

But the internet is only part of the story. To maximize impact, fight against disinformation should also take place offline, experts and journalists agree. Mafindo has been doing just that: it has been holding training workshops for the general public, including sessions targeted to women prone to disinformation.

Only work together, online and offline, seems to provide the silver bullet for the hoax fighters. Fairness in upcoming elections will much depend on that.

Nurma Fitrianingrum is a student of Master of Arts in Public Policy, with an interest in new media and public policy.

This article was documented and written as part of the Practicum Class conducted by Marius Dragomir at the CEU School of Public Policy (SPP).

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