Indonesia’s highest Muslim clerical council said Wednesday it is preparing to issue a fatwa (a religious ruling) to curb the spread of fake news being used to fuel ethnic and religious tensions and threatening to influence an upcoming election.
The fatwa will decree the spreading of slander and lies as haram, or forbidden. However, fatwas are not legally binding and the council is not an officially elected government body, meaning the impact of the ruling could be limited.
The government is also attempting to stop the spread of fake news, with the Communications Ministry last month blocking 11 websites it claimed were spreading hatred and misinformation, following a similar step in November.
“We will issue [the fatwa] as soon as possible, because the situation is worrying,” said Maaruf Amin, chairman of the Indonesian Ulema Council. “Hopefully, at least Muslims won’t be involved anymore in hoaxes.” Amin added that the council had consulted the government first before issuing its decision “so that our approach will not be in opposition to government policy.”
Fake news spreads
In Indonesia, fake news has been a problem for some time, but in recent months there has been an uptick in stories targeting Chinese and Christian minorities in the country. Some of the spurious reports being widely shared in recent weeks include a suggestion that 10 million Chinese workers have flooded into Indonesia; a report that a Communist hammer-and-sickle symbol was hidden in new banknotes; and a claim that a free HPV vaccine program could make girls infertile – part of a Chinese conspiracy to weaken the Indonesian Muslim population.
One fake news story has even led to a politician facing charges of blasphemy as a result of an incorrectly subtitled video going viral on Facebook. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, or Ahok as he is known in Indonesia, is seeking reelection as governor of the capital Jakarta in a Feb. 15 election expected to be hotly contested. Pumama is an ethnic Chinese Christian and is facing two Muslim opponents.
Pumana stands accused of blasphemy after an edited video and transcript of a campaign speech he made in September appeared online, with ultra-conservative Muslims claiming it showed him insulting the Quran. Pumana and his supporters insist that he was merely criticizing those who preach from it. As a result of the video being shared widely, tens of thousands of protesters, led by hardline Muslim leaders, descended on Jakarta to call for Pumana to be imprisoned.
Government takes action
President Joko Widodo, widely seen as a Muslim moderate, has vowed to crack down on the fake news problem. “Slander, hatred, and rude words on social media are increasingly troubling people,” Jokowi tweeted on Dec. 29. “We need determined and tough law enforcement.”
The president is well aware of the impact fake news can have. During the 2014 presidential elections, a smear campaign claimed variously that he was the child of Indonesian Communist Party members, of Chinese descent, and a Christian. Widodo was forced to produce his marriage certificate in order to stop the rumors.
The issue of fake news in Indonesia, a country of 260 million people, is amplified by the outsized influence social media plays there, particularly Facebook and Twitter. For many people in the country, the internet begins and ends with Facebook, and it has the highest mobile usage rate of anywhere in the world, according to eMarketer. That influence is only set to become greater given that only one third of the population has an internet connection at the moment.
The president has called on social media users to stop the spread of fake news, and the Indonesian government has asked Facebook to help combat the problem.