Saracen Is Shut Down. But Can We Ever Really Beat Fake News?
Can Indonesia arrest its way to a cleaner internet?
Ilustrasi oleh Bambang Noer Ramadhan
It should be old news by now, but I guess it bears repeating: Indonesia has a fake news problem. Take a look back at any recent election and it's easy to see the impact of fake news and hoaxes. It's not enough for a candidate to be better than their rivals. Now they need to be better than the worst possible version of themselves dreamed up by the fakest "journalists" out there. President Joko Widodo had to combat rumors that he's a Chinese Christian ready to sell the country off to China. His one-time running mate Basuki Tjahaja Purnama is sitting in jail right now, but that hasn't stopped his opponents from penning stories that claim he's having a blast.
Still doubt fake news plays a role in Indonesia's elections? Then think about this: political hoaxes made up 22 percent of all fake stories circulating during the Jakarta gubernatorial election, according to Agus Sudibyo, the secretary of the Indonesian Journalist Association (PWI). That was only five percent shy of the number of health-related hoaxes circulating at the same time. And everyone knows the health hoax is king of the fake news cesspool.
But maybe there's a shred of sunlight this week. The National Police's cyber crimes division took down Saracen's Facebook page and arrested three of its admins. This might be the only time in Indonesian history all that mimin hate was justified.
Saracen was one of Indonesia's worst purveyors of racist, sectarian, and downright vicious fake news and memes. It's Facebook page had more than 800,000 followers and it was a massive money maker for its admins. A single post could bring in as much as Rp 100 million ($7,500 USD) because their memes had such wide reach.
But the takedown of Saracen doesn't mean the end of hoaxes. The Ministry of Communications and Information found some 800,000 websites spreading hoaxes and hate speech last year. The majority of those have not been reported to the ministry. Instead, the centra government seems more concerned with blocking pornographic and gambling sites—as well as websites like Reddit and Vimeo. The ministry blocked as many as 773,000 websites in 2016 alone. Ninety percent were porn or gambling sites.
"The crackdown on this syndicate doesn't mean the end of hoaxes," Frenavit Putra, an IT expert at ICT Watch, told VICE. "There may be less hoaxes right now, but it's all temporary."
Frenavit said that Saracen is just one of the many "hate agencies" out there. Fake news sites spreading hate speech and content deemed SARA—racist or sectarian sentiment—are very popular right now, he said
"Before the presidential election, they were already active," Frenavit said. "It's since become more heated since it was a battle between only two candidates. It's so easy for them, supporters from both parties were already fighting with each other."
Both Google and Facebook launched an app to ward off hoaxes and other online watchdog groups try to fact-check these stories through crowdsourcing. But for many internet users, the truth is whatever confirms their previously held viewpoints. They easily believe that fake news is real as long as it fits their own beliefs. And they would just as easily use fake stories to attack other people with opposing viewpoints. It would take a widespread digital literacy campaign to educate people to filter out fake news before Indonesia could see a real change, Frenavit said.
"Since the very beginning, what fuels fake news is hatred and disappointment towards people in power or toward certain religions or ethnicities," Frenavit said. "The trigger is a group of people who produce these hoaxes. The eradication of fake news is not an easy feat because some people are just blinded by their hatred."
Others are trying to combat fake news through facts. Turn Back Hoax first went online last year. The website has since grown into an important resource for Indonesians to check the veracity of memes and fake stories. It's run by a team of volunteers and receives the help of Facebook pages like Forum Anti Fitnah, Hasut and Hoax (FAFHH).
"Our volunteers always monitor their social media feeds," Aribowo Sasmito, the co-founder of Turn Back Hoax, told VICE. "If there's any indications of a hoax, we will check with credible sources. If it's legit a hoax, we will put it up on our website. We're planning to build an accessible database for public."
But in the end, it really comes down to the readers, not the police, central government, or social media companies, to put an end to fake news, Aribowo said.
"Hoaxes come from the people, so only people who can put an end to it—not content providers," he told VICE. "I think there will always be hoaxes, but we can train ourselves to know the difference between real and fake news."