Indonesian police uncover syndicate spreading hate speech online

The police cybercrime unit said dozens of Facebook and other social media accounts were being used to spread hate material to an estimated 800,000 social media accounts.
The police cybercrime unit said dozens of Facebook and other social media accounts were being used to spread hate material to an estimated 800,000 social media accounts. PHOTO: AFP

JAKARTA (Reuters) - Indonesian authorities have uncovered a group spreading hate speech and fake news online, one of many that they fear could undermine national unity.

Indonesia has an ethnically diverse population of 250 million people, most of them Muslim but with significant minorities from other religions, and unity across the archipelago has been a priority of the Indonesian government for decades.

Three people were arrested this week on suspicion of being part of a syndicate paid to spread incendiary material online through social media, police said.

"If this is allowed to continue, it isn't just about violating the law but also has the potential to damage the unity of this country," said presidential spokesman Johan Budi.

Mr Budi said it was up to investigators to determine the motives of those behind the campaign. He added that police should investigate the issue "right down to its roots".

National police spokesman Awi Setiyono said the material involved religious and ethnic issues and posts defamatory to government officials.

He declined to comment on the motives, saying investigators were still working on the case and had yet to identify who was behind the syndicate, which calls itself Saracen.

The police cybercrime unit said dozens of Facebook and other social media accounts were being used to spread the material to an estimated 800,000 social media accounts.

Mr Setiyono said investigators had uncovered money transfers of up to US$5,000 (S$6,800) that was used to pay those spreading the material.

Religious and ethnic tensions flared in the capital Jakarta this year when city elections pitted an ethnic Chinese Christian governor, who was accused on insulting Islam, against a Muslim candidate.

The authorities have scrambled to remove hate speech from social media and online forums in an attempt to defuse tensions but a growing amount of content encouraging religious intolerance or radicalism is still being shared.

Search giant Google said this month that it was working with the authorities to tackle content deemed to be offensive.