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Indonesia’s front line in the war on fake news

April 09, 2019

JAKARTA: 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 April 17 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."

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 at the NGO Mafindo, 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.