Saracen may have been shut down but Indonesia still needs a plan to take down other fake news generators.

Like everywhere else, it needs better media credibility and digital literacy.

By Erin Cook
Splice Indonesia
Aribowo Sasmito, the co-founder of Mafindo
Aribowo Sasmito, the co-founder of Mafindo, joined forces with Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization, to launch the #TurnBackHoax campaign, which uses social media to dispel hoaxes and fake stories. Photo provided by Aribowo Sasmito

‘Fake news’ is not new to Southeast Asia, with state-controlled media outlets historically pumping out pro-government messaging across the region.

But, in Indonesia, social media and loosening restrictions on the press pose a new threat as fake news goes beyond generating headlines to sow real-world social divisions. Fake news producers in Indonesia have exploited pre-existing ethnic, racial and religious differences to generate either traffic or political unrest amid hotly contested elections, notably during the Jakarta gubernatorial election in early 2017. Rather than winding down after the vote, these operations have continued prompting the development of innovative responses to hamper its influence.   

The shutdown of the country’s largest fake-news generator in August is illustrative of attempts by policymakers and activists to expand efforts to combat fake news ahead of general elections in 2019.


Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama
Former Jakarta governor Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama Photo: jafriyalbule / Shutterstock

Cash for campaigns

Reportedly offering a service in which ‘news’ is published and disseminated for $5,550 per campaign, the so-called Saracen syndicate has been linked to damaging falsehoods spread about former Jakarta governor Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama, who is serving a controversial two-year sentence for blasphemy, as well as President Joko Widodo and his allies.

Five people have been arrested in connection with Saracen, including 32-year-old ringleader Jasriadi, who disputes allegations he hacked 800,000 social media accounts, saying the figure is more likely around 150,000 – and only accounts of users deemed to have ‘attacked’ former military general and failed presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto.

The Saracen case is one of the most high-profile in Indonesia, but it is by no means the only one. In social media-obsessed Indonesia, online posts have the potential to create wider repercussions, such as last month’s violent protest in Central Jakarta in which counter-protesters turned up after messages warning of a pro-communist rally went viral.

Likewise, Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, head of the National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB), has been forced to debunk hoaxes and fake reports of a volcanic eruption of Bali’s Mount Agung, which threatens hundreds of thousands of Balinese households and tourism communities—just another example of the kinds of incidents that have left Indonesia scrambling to regain control of media messaging.

Spiralling problem

Ross Tapsell, an expert in Indonesian media at the Australian National University, attributes the spiralling fake news problem to the rapid uptake of mobile and social media in Indonesia at a time when trust in mainstream media is declining (like in much of the world).

“Solutions are found through improving Indonesia’s mainstream media credibility, internet access and digital literacy,” Tapsell says. “The rise of ‘hoax news’ is thus a reflection of longer-term failures in these areas, rather than something that can be fixed immediately or easily.”

For now, Indonesia’s government is taking a different approach: a special body has been created within the National Police to target fake news creators as part of the February expansion of the cyber crimes unit from 40 officers to 100. And the Communications and Information Ministry has also teamed up with Google to roll out the Trusted Flagger Program in which volunteers can tip off the internet giant about fake news, radical or otherwise untrustworthy content on a number of its sites, including YouTube.

Dispelling hoaxes

Meanwhile, two civil society groups – the powerful Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization, and Masyarakat Anti-Fitnah Indonesia (Mafindo) – launched the #TurnBackHoax campaign following the divisive and bitter gubernatorial election.

The campaign uses social media to dispel hoaxes and fake stories, but with an estimated 88.1 million Indonesians active online, volunteers and activists remain in the minority. Nevertheless, the team behind the campaign remains optimistic about gaining traction, with Mafindo co-founder Aribowo Sasmito pointing to growing membership of their active Anti-Slander, Sedition and Hoax Forum.

But, he says, fake news needs a multi-pronged response. “Mafindo is about debunking and education, but the result will not be as fast as the government’s approach with law enforcement,” Sasmito says.

“The government’s [current] approach is short-term as it does not engage directly with the anti-hoax movement.”

Sasmito also says that global players such as Facebook, Twitter and Google must take a more active role in combating fake news.

“We have met with some of them and typically their response is: we know the accounts that spread hoaxes, we know the networks, we have the means to stop them but we are not a censorship agent,” he says.

But, while taming the fake news beast is an ongoing challenge, there are some positives on the horizon, according to Sasmito: “The good news is they will do their best to provide help and assistance to the anti-hoax movement, and Mafindo is already working with some platform and media providers.”

Erin Cook is a Jakarta-based journalist covering Asean and Southeast Asian politics. She curates the Dari Mulut ke Mulut newsletter, bringing together the top stories and best in analysis from the region every Friday. Follow Erin Cook on Twitter.

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