Indonesia’s ‘hoaxes’ go deeper than just disinformation

Thomas Paterson / No Comments Share:
A protester peeks from the glass of police shield during a rally to reject the result of the national vote recapitulation in Jakarta, Indonesia on May 21, 2019. Joko Widodo won his re-election with 55.5 percent votes, failing his arch rival, former army general Prabowo Subianto who obtained 44.5 percent votes, Indonesia's General Election Commission (KPU) announced on Tuesday. (Xinhua/Veri Sanovri)

The 2019 Indonesian election period was marred by violent protests and incessant widespread disinformation — commonly referred to as ‘hoaxes’ in Indonesia. The incumbent President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo was the target of numerous hoaxes including an assertion that he wants to ‘sell’ Java and Sumatra to China in exchange for writing off Indonesia’s state debt of US$21 billion.

Disinformation had previously plagued both the 2014 presidential election and 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial elections. But during the 2019 election, the General Elections Commission of Indonesia (KPU) itself became a target for the first time. One hoax involved a video that showed the seizure of millions of pre-marked ballot papers sent from China at a port in northern Jakarta. The story was quickly debunked but the hoax was estimated to have been featured in approximately 17,000 tweets.

Since the fall of Indonesian president Suharto and his authoritarian New Order regime in 1998, the KPU — while not infallible — has been one of Indonesia’s more reliable and incorruptible institutions. Although opposition candidate Prabowo Subianto alleged systematic cheating and questioned the KPU’s integrity, independent observers have confirmed that the election was indeed free and fair. The targeting of the KPU is a serious problem as public trust in the election commission is crucial to proper democratic functioning in Indonesia.

Cekfakta is a fact checking and verification project launched by 22 media companies to combat the spread of disinformation. The Indonesian Anti-Slander Society, Mafindo, also has hundreds of volunteers scouring the Internet to find and debunk hoaxes before they gain traction.

But their efforts have been frustrated by ‘buzzers’— cyber trolls who are paid to share and amplify hoaxes using fake social media accounts. There is even evidence of buzzers working for different campaign teams, who solicit their services to help shape the online discourse and political messaging.

The Indonesian government has also exerted pressure on Facebook to be more proactive in countering disinformation. Facebook has deactivated accounts including those associated with the Saracen group — a group that accepts payment for targeting people online. But Facebook has not publicly outlined the policy framework that it uses to decide which accounts to deactivate. Administrators of these groups reportedly earn up to US$7500 per social media post, as they are widely utilised for their nefarious online skills.

Free speech suppression is also a big problem in Indonesia. In 2017 celebrity Ahmad Dhani called then Jakarta governor Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama a blasphemer and ‘insulted’ Ahok’s supporters through multiple Twitter posts. Dhani was found guilty under the Electronic Information and Transactions Law (ITE) law of ‘hate speech’. None of the tweets explicitly mention Ahok’s ethnicity, religion or race as specifically required under Article 28(2). Convicting Dhani based on these tweets is highly problematic.

Similarly, State Jakarta University academic Robertus Robet was arrested for protesting against the proposed revision of a 2004 law that prevents active Indonesian military (TNI) officers from serving in ministries and public institutions. As part of his protest Robet sang a spoof song about the TNI, reminiscent of the ‘Ahok’ affair, and an edited video was shared widely online.

The song’s context was altered in this edited version, prompting a harsh backlash from those who felt it was insulting to the TNI. According to a police warrant, Robet was accused of ‘spreading hatred and hostility’ and ‘offending an authority or legal body’. These charges were brought under the ITE law and the Criminal Code (KUHP).

Robet’s arrest highlights how criminal provisions are being used to silence free speech in Indonesia. At the heart of the problem is the overly vague phrase from Article 28(2) of the ITE Law — ‘knowingly and without authority disseminates information aimed at inflicting hatred’.

According to the Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network, 260 cases have been prosecuted under the ITE law. These elastic laws can be used as political tools to suppress free speech and target political opponents.

Indonesia scored 6.38 out of 10 in The Economist’s Democracy Index for 2018. This implies that Indonesia is on the verge of retreating from the ‘flawed democracy’ category into the ‘hybrid regime’ category. And according to Freedom House’s ‘Freedom in the World’ survey, Indonesia has lost rank, from 64 out of 100 in 2018 to 62 out of 100 in 2019. While a ‘retreat from democracy’ is unlikely due to the strength of local level politics, this downgrading represents a worryingly negative trend.

The chaos that beset Jakarta after the release of election results is indicative of deeper issues. This includes the allegation that ex-members of Kopassus — the Indonesian Army’s special forces — were involved in mobilising rioters. It is alleged by police that one ex-Kopassus commander obtained weapons to be used during the post-election unrest.

The conspiracy theory that ‘Chinese police’ had been bought in to shoot protesters during the Jakarta riots is the result of a concoction of disinformation and disillusionment. Comprehensively addressing these issues will be challenging for a second-term Jokowi government, but more must be done to address these issues that are holding Indonesia and its citizens back.

Thomas Paterson is a postgraduate research student of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University. This commentary first appeared in East Asia Forum.

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