VICE Asia is calling 2019 " The Year We Woke Up ." This year, we saw young people stand up, push back, and take matters into their own hands. We celebrate the fighters, the change makers, the movements that have shaken us wide awake and reminded us of our own roles in realising change. This story is part of a series.
This article originally appeared on VICE Indonesia.
Indonesians are notorious for falling prey to fake news. Since misinformation has led to quite a few crises over the past decade, one solution might be a system that can track social media topics and pinpoint where they originated. That’s what Ismail Fahmi aims to do.
The founder of the social media analysis system based on big data, Fahmi's creation was instrumental in Indonesia’s war against disinformation following the 2014 presidential elections. VICE met with Fahmi at his South Jakarta home, where his 27-inch Mac computer and copy of Marc Goodman’s book Future Crimes – a novel about cyber crime, surveillance economy, data theft, and the risks of big data – stood out.
“When I’m not speaking at a seminar, I just spend time in front of my computer, monitoring,” Fahmi said. For the past three years, he has been the media’s go-to man for comments when an issue takes over social media, like this year’s hoax that the Indonesian Communist Party was secretly recruiting members, or the riots against racial discrimination in West Papua that took place in August 2019. At the time, disinformation and hoaxes were taking over Indonesia like wildfire, enticing hundreds of people to click and read. This wave of disinformation led to the worst polarisation in Indonesian socio-political history since Indonesia gained independence in 1945.
Fahmi finished his first Emprit drone prototype, a social media scanning software (that isn’t a drone at all), while he was finishing his PhD in Computational Linguistics in the Netherlands in 2010. He studied how computers understand the human language. His prototype combined machine learning and computational linguistics. A year later, he developed the technology further, for it to be applicable to all social media platforms.
The Indonesian Ministry of Communication caught wind of Fahmi’s invention and quickly adopted it as a filter for hoaxes and pornographic content. His clients, which Fahmi was reluctant to list, include several ministries and commercial companies.
Fahmi’s decision to dabble in the world of politics was a conscious one. As he monitored social media during 2014’s tense political climate, he realised his Emprit drone could do more than scan social media content for commercial purposes.
“Before I created the Emprit drone, we already had analysis systems like this, but they only had government clients,” he said. “In 2016, politically-charged issues appeared more and more on social media, and then disinformation, misinformation, and propaganda. On social media, it’s difficult to tell right from wrong.”
Fahmi pulled up his drone on his desktop computer. At first glance, the software looks like the dashboard of a blog. Users enter a keyword, time frame, and social media platform to start monitoring.
When he entered the keyword “Jokowi,” Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s nickname, a green and red map-like graphic appeared, displaying clusters of Twitter threads on the subject. Although the two clusters were separate, the software was able to differentiate Jokowi supporters from opponents by the tone of the tweets.
As topics discussed on social media are vast, Fahmi’s system receives a massive amount of data, much of which needs to be manually checked for accuracy.
“In mass media, you clearly cannot see the pattern of how a hoax spreads,” Fahmi said. “Who started it? I think that when people don’t know what’s going on, the Emprit drone can provide insight. We essentially break down the gist of what is being said about a certain topic on a social media platform using a top-down approach, which is why I named my software after a drone. The public must be more literate.”
Fahmi is well aware that his efforts to disclose social media content in simple terms might upset groups with certain agendas, especially when an issue is amplified on social media by bots.
“The individuals operating those bots are just following orders. We have no data on them, and they leave no traces online. I never agree to meet with people from two different sides of an issue. They usually just end up bullying me on social media,” he said.
The use of bots online has been common in the past decade. Initially, companies used bots to promote products, but politicians caught on to the trend as well. In Indonesia, it’s not uncommon for bots, controlled by political parties, to raise an issue on social media to fulfil a political agenda, polarise netizens, and sway public opinion.
An Oxford University report from September 2019 revealed that in Indonesia, bot contracts are typically valued between $71 and $3585. But the report is not comprehensive. During the West Papua riots in August, when thousands took to the streets to protest racial discrimination, the Indonesian government was accused of using bots to spread pro-government propaganda related to the issue in West Papua, a province that has been fighting for independence from Indonesia for over 50 years. Facebook announced that InsightID, a Jakarta-based PR agency, had spent $300,000 on Facebook ads, while also using bots to infiltrate several Facebook pages targeted at a European audience and spread false information about the riots.
Regarding the Papua case, Fahmi said the government still has not performed its duty as a mediator, or provided clear, completely factual information to the public.
“For me, getting involved in the Papua issue was a matter of urging the government to be more active, to do something,” Fahmi told VICE.
On top of bots, Indonesian politicians are also heavily reliant on buzzers, or people paid to operate social media accounts that promote a political candidate or brand. In September, the Ministry of Information launched the Good Palm Oil campaign to increase support for the product after facing backlash over palm oil’s ties to this year’s devastating forest fires. The campaign employed buzzers to host giveaways on Twitter and openly recruited influencers to host palm oil-related workshops.
Buzzers have essentially become a tool to achieve political success. Anies Baswedan, governor of Jakarta, even laid out a plan to spend $358,000 on buzzers to promote the city as a tourist destination, but it was later scrapped.
“As long as people have agendas, buzzers will exist,” Fahmi said. “We have to focus on the root of the problem instead of attacking the buzzers.”
Today, Fahmi is currently developing a system that will allow his Emprit drone to infiltrate WhatsApp groups. An article on The Atlantic calls WhatsApp groups “the dark social," referring to how such groups are closed, yet contribute greatly to disinformation.
Fahmi is well aware that WhatsApp is different from most social media platforms. Infiltrating a group, he said, is simple: He registers one phone number to hundreds of public WhatsApp groups and extracts information based on keywords. But this method doesn’t work on closed, invite-only groups.
Fahmi fears that since current public discourse is dominated by issues raised on social media by bots and buzzers, Indonesia’s democracy may be at risk.
“Whether it’s a security or farming issue, we’ll be able to provide an alternative narrative to what’s out there,” Fahmi said.