This is the first in a three part series investigating the rise of fake news and hoaxes in the run-up to Indonesia's 2019 presidential election. This story has been published and produced within the context of a grant received for the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (seapa.org) Fellowship program for 2018-2019 from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). The views expressed herein can in no way be taken to reflect the official opinion of OHCHR.
In the cramped office he shares with five other staffers, Muhammad Khairil Haesy peers at his computer screen. Since 2016, this rented 5 by 6 meter room in South Jakarta, so tiny that employees need to take turns to move about, has been the command center of the Anti-Slander Society (Mafindo).
The tables are covered in piles of loose paper and empty coffee cups. There's a dartboard in one corner, despite the fact that the place is so small, it would be nearly impossible to actually play.
Mafindo is one of the NGOs that rose in recent years to combat what's become a global concern—the rise of fake news and disinformation campaigns online. While countries in the West are demanding accountability from tech giants like Facebook and Google, Indonesia is trying to fight hoaxes at their source, with organizations like Mafindo monitoring the fake news cycle and offering their own fact-checked response in an attempt to counter false narratives.
Sometimes it works, like when Mafindo successfully contested false claims that the government was tying to ban prayer in schools. But often the work of fact-checkers like Khairil can feel a bit like bailing out a sinking ship with a tea cup. There's just no possible way to get the water out of the ship fast enough to keep it from slipping beneath the waves.
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"It’s like chasing after hoaxes every day," he said of a typical workday. "Sometimes by the time we clear things up, the hoax has been shared thousands of times. Ironically, when this happens, sometimes the debunked post only gets a couple dozen shares."
Khairil has spent the last three years immersed in a world of half-truths and outright lies. He was wearing his favorite shirt—a blue checkered flannel number—when we met. Khairil told me that he only puts the shirt on when he's in a good mood, which made his sartorial selection that day a bit odd, because, as far as weeks in the fact-checking industry go, Khairil was having a rough one.
A few days before, he came across a fake narrative called "23 Coincidences" that was making its way through Indonesia's WhatsApp group chats. The hoax was, like many that find traction online, a mix of actual facts taken out of context and total fiction. It aimed to discredit incumbent President Joko Widodo, a man who is seeking a second term in the coming April 2019 election, by accusing him of secretly working with China to revive the long-dead Indonesian Communist Party (PKI).
There are few bigger boogeymen in modern Indonesia than the PKI. The political party was accused of torturing and killing army generals during a failed coup attempt back in 1965 that precipitated the fall of Indonesia's founding father Sukarno and the rise of Gen. Suharto and his authoritarian military regime, called the New Order.
Decades of New Order propaganda painted the PKI as a band of murderous thugs who were always lurking in the shadows, ready to pounce and seize the country from its military saviors. Much of this official narrative has been debunked in recent years—the man who conducted an autopsy on the generals' bodies said that none of them had showed signs of torture—but it hasn't stopped politicians from warning of the re-emergence of the communist threat to score political points.
That's why, today, the communist card is a common weapon among the anti-Jokowi camp. False claims that the president was aligned with a cabal of closet PKI members first rose to the surface back in the 2014 election, alongside claims that Jokowi, a Javanese Muslim, was actually a Chinese Christian with communists in his family tree. None of it was true, but in the world of fake news, an engaging narrative beats the truth any day. So when Khairil first saw "23 Coincidences" he immediately knew it was a hoax. But just knowing something is false doesn't make it any easier to prove it.
“It took me about a week to debunk that hoax,” Khairil told me. “There were 23 points in that hoax. And that one in particular (Jokowi’s supposed links to China) was the most difficult to debunk because it mixed facts, disinformation, and narration that was formulated to look like the truth. At first glance, it looks like opinion but it’s presented in such a way that it sways public perspective to believe that the Indonesian government and China are conspiring to revive the PKI.”
Still, Mafindo is making an impact. The group had debunked 65 hoaxes in July. By October that number had risen to 111, about 80 percent of which were targeting the Jokowi administration. In August, Mafindo was certified as Indonesia's first non-news fact-checking organization by the US-based International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN). Today, it has 20 staff members and dozens of volunteers working across Indonesia.
Despite their size, Mafindo can't stop fighting what amounts to a war of attrition. Some hoaxes go viral before people like Khairil have a chance to debunk them. Mafindo says they have the capacity to debunk only about six hoaxes a day, as each hoax takes two to three days to look into.
And even when they're debunked, there's no guarantee the truth will have the same impact as the hoax. When Mafindo posted their takedown of the "23 Coincidences" hoax, it was only shared twice and liked 17 times.
“It’s still better than doing absolutely nothing," Khairil remarked.
Indonesia's demographics put it on the front lines of the war on fake news. Some 143 million Indonesians, or 54.68 percent of the total population of 262 million, have internet access, according to data from the Ministry of Communications and Information. The country has the fourth highest number of Facebook users in the world, with 126 million active users.
But for a lot of Indonesians, especially those living in rural or under-developed areas, internet access is still somewhat new. Only a decade ago, less than 10 percent of the population was online, according to some estimates. Much of this rise is tied to the increasing availability of affordable smartphones and the expansion of mobile data networks. By 2019, there will be an estimated 92 million smartphones in Indonesia, according to industry analysts.
And with all these new smartphones comes new people using chat apps like WhatsApp for the first time. That's why WhatsApp, not Facebook or Twitter, is a breeding ground for new hoaxes in Indonesia. There are more than 104 million WhatsApp users, all of them engaged in the use of an app that distributes information faster than conventional media.
At least 62.8 percent of Indonesians online have received hoaxes from chat apps like WhatsApp, according to a study conducted by Masyarakat Telematika Indonesia. In addition, 92.4 percent respondents said they received hoaxes from social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, as well as YouTube.
WhatsApp, and other chat apps like it, changed the fake news landscape in Indonesia. In 2014, the last time Jokowi faced off against rival Prabowo Subianto in a presidential election, hoaxes had already emerged as a new and influential form of what Indonesians call "black campaigns," or smears against a political opponent.
But back then, it was websites masquerading as tabloids or news portals that were behind the spread of claims that Jokowi was secretly a Christian communist. Today, it's social media and chat apps, a version of the internet so hard to police that experts have taken to calling it the "dark social."
Usman Kansong, the director of political communications for the Jokowi campaign, told me that the fake news industry has undergone a dramatic sea change since the last presidential election.
"There are incredible developments in the social media landscape and ecosystem happening right now," Usman said. "Unfortunately, on the other hand, you can use the internet to create and spread hoaxes and hate speech."
"Dark social," a term coined by tech journalist Alexis Madrigal in The Atlantic, describes a phenomenon that occurs when the circulation of data happens in a vacuum, without being monitored or traced by a conventional analytical system.
"The sharing you see on sites like Facebook and Twitter is the tip of the 'social' iceberg. We are impressed by its scale because it's easy to measure," Madrigal wrote. "But most sharing is done via dark social means like email and instant messaging that are difficult to measure."
It's there, in the dark social, where Indonesia's fake news armies thrive, Arfi Bambani Amri, a trainer with the Google News Initiative, told me. Arfi believes that the situation today is far worse than it was in the 2014 election. The public has become much more aware of technology, especially social media, but they don't always have the digital literacy skills needed to tell fact from fiction, he explained.
"I feel that the dissemination of hoaxes happened so quickly during the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election because the main medium was WhatsApp,” Arfi told me. “At first it happens in a WhatsApp group chat, then it moves from the group to other individuals, like a relay race. And that can happen within seconds. It’s hard to figure out who spreads it.”
WhatsApp group chats have become echo chambers that amplify confirmation bias, Arfi explained, with people with the same thought processes set on receiving information that is distorted by their own beliefs. This is why Indonesia is fast moving toward a "post-truth" future, according to Arfi.
It's also why Facebook, the owner of WhatsApp, needs to figure out how to curb the spread of fake news in your group chats, not your feed, if it wants to truly address the role its platforms have played in the dissemination of disinformation.
WhatsApp has recently implemented new features that place limits on how messages spread. The app now allows users to forward a message to no more than 20 contacts. It also shows when a message has been forwarded so users can separate whats become a digital version of a robo-call from their friends' and relatives' actual words.
But WhatsApp still stops short of some of the measures put in place by Twitter and Facebook, like needing to upload an image of your government ID to set up a new account or keep your old one active.
Still, even with these new safety measures, hoaxes are finding fertile grounds online. Khairil, of Mafindo, told me that, as far as he can see, discussions online will continue to revolve around fake news and hoax campaigns—even if most of it is just the repackaging of old ideas.
“Issues on identity politics continue to dominate,” he said. “Issues like the PKI and Chinese scare are going to keep being reproduced, especially around election time, even though they’ve been debunked time and time again."
In July, Mafindo released what it calls the WhatsApp Hoax Buster (WHB) as a Google Chrome extension. The WHB system is a database that automatically counters hoaxes on WhatsApp. When a hoax appears, users can report content to be reviewed.
Another organization, Drone Emprit, is developing a system that automatically infiltrates WhatsApp group chats to monitor discussions and the spread of the most-forwarded messages. Drone Emprit uses machine learning to analyze social media with tech that was previously used to mine big data sets. It's been vital in identifying the kinds of bot network accounts that are used by a lot of disinformation agencies.
And the central government itself is also getting involved by trying to improve digital literacy in Indonesia. Since most believe that hoaxes aren't going to disappear, no matter how much work is done to counter their spread, the only option available is for the public to get better at identifying and reporting fake news and hoaxes.
Right now, the communications ministry is accepting emailed screenshots of potential fakes to add to its database of hoaxes once they've been proven to be incorrect. Internally, the ministry is trying to set up a channel of communication between all branches of the Jokowi administration to establish a uniform tone and response to hoaxes, explained Kristantyo Wisnubroto, who works in the ministry's information network division.
“This is like a government’s public relations,” Kristantyo told me. “The communication strategy allows us to share data so that the public can access it quickly. That hopefully could provide the public with useful information on government’s activities and policies.”
On a broader level, the government has initiated a civil movement called Siberkreasi (a name that plays on the phrase "Cyber Creation" in Bahasa Indonesia), which promotes digital literacy. It invites people in the creative industry, influencers, academics, and government officials to produce "positive" content, like educational videos and literature about the danger of disinformation. So far, over 130,000 participants from 52 Indonesian cities have joined the movement.
"There will always be hoaxes," Kristantyo said. "We probably won’t ever get rid of them completely. But we can provide clarification and educate society on how to respond to it.”