Indonesia battles fake news as elections loom

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Indonesia's President Joko Widodo. Reuters

JAKARTA (AFP) – Indonesia is battling a wave of fake news and online hate speech ahead of presidential elections in 2019, as a string of arrests underscore fears it could crack open social and religious fault lines in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country.

The pluralist nation’s reputation as a bastion of tolerance has been tested in recent months, as conservative groups exploit social media to spread lies and target minorities.

Police have cracked down, rounding up members of the Muslim Cyber Army (MCA), a cluster of loosely connected groups accused of using Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to attack the government and stoke religious extremism.

Two of the group’s most high-profile falsehoods were claims that dozens of Islamic clerics had been assaulted by leftists and that Indonesia’s outlawed communist party was on the rise, according to police.

Communism – and its hallmark atheist beliefs – remains a taboo subject in Indonesia, where bloody purges under the Suharto dictatorship in the mid-1960s killed half a million suspected leftists.

Gatot Eddy Pramono, the National Police’s head of social affairs, has said the group wants to destabilise government and “create social conflict”.

Although the Southeast Asian nation has seen Internet hoaxes before – including smear campaigns against President Joko Widodo during the 2014 presidential elections – the recent clampdown reflects authorities’ mounting unease about their possible impact on election campaigning.

Indonesia will hold simultaneous regional elections in June, ahead of a presidential ballot in 2019.

Last month, the communications ministry announced it was deploying new software to identify fake news websites, while Mr Widodo – who has battled false Internet claims that he is a communist – inaugurated a new cyber security agency in January.

Some 130 million Indonesians – about half the population – spend an average of nearly three-and-a-half hours a day on social media, one of the highest rates in the world, according to data from London-based creative agency We Are Social and social media management platform Hootsuite.

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